This article is also published in Family Law here.
January is a time for new beginnings, and once the children are back at school and the fairy lights have been packed away, there is a notable increase in the number of people calling time on a relationship or marriage that has run its course. Picking up a phone to a family lawyer can be an intimidating prospect, so what practical steps can you take to gain some control of the situation if you have decided to separate?
- What about the children?
Deciding when and what to tell the children is often a thorny subject, so start by thinking practically. This is one of the biggest changes that will happen in their lives. Research how you can help them through it and how best to support them. Resolution, Gingerbread and Relate are useful sources of information.
- Think about practical arrangements for the children.
If you will be continuing to live together for the immediate future, think about how you can both be involved in the children’s lives. Perhaps think about carving out time for the children to spend with each of you separately each weekend, can you both do some school drops offs or pick-ups? Can you arrange for each of you to take children to particular activities during the week or at the weekend?
- Is one of you moving out?
If you have children, how can things be arranged so that you are both close by? Being geographically close will make practical involvement with the children easier. Think through how this can be managed and afforded. Bear in mind that whatever arrangements are in place might need to last several months, so how sustainable are they? Is it realistic for one person to stay with friends or family for a long period of time?
- Keep in contact with the children’s school.
Make sure that the children’s school, nursery or other carer has contact details for both of you and that you both receive any letters, emails or newsletters that are sent out. If there are informal school email or social media groups, make sure both parents are involved in these. This will keep everyone informed of what’s happening in the children’s lives, which not only helps on a day to day basis with practical arrangements but means that the children receive the reassurance of both parents being able to talk to them about the things happening in their lives.
Find a form of communication that works best for you. Face to face is hard, but emails and text messages are easy to hide behind and people can say and behave in ways that they would not in person. Make use of relationship support services to find a safe space to talk in, if you do not want to see each other alone. Think about whether you would benefit from family or relationship therapy, not necessarily to discuss whether your relationship has a future as couple, but how you will work together during the divorce process and beyond.
Work out what you need to live on each month. Use bank statements, credit card and utility bills to work out what you spend each month. Identify how much of this is essential and how much is discretionary, don’t forget expenditure that happens only a couple of times a year. How much do you need to spend on a holiday in the summer? What is your budget for Christmas and birthday presents?
- Know your income and assets.
Take your time to make a comprehensive list of your bank accounts, assets and property. If you own property, research how much this might be worth. If you have a mortgage, find out how much is left to repay and over what term. Are there are any penalties for early repayment? If you have a pension try to find your most recent statement and contact the pension company for an estimate of its current value. If you work, make sure you have copies of your recent payslips and your last P60 as a record of what you earned in the last financial year. If you don’t work, what sources of income do you have? Are you entitled to child benefit if you will be living separately or any other forms of benefit?
- Look to the future.
Think about how you would like life to look at the beginning of 2017. Start to think about where you might live, even if the idea of moving is a worst case scenario it is good to know the alternatives. Might you have to return to work, increase your hours or retrain? If so, start to think about what is achievable and realistic.
- Find a lawyer.
It is sensible to have some advice even if you do not want to use a lawyer in the long term. Find a lawyer who specialises in family law and has the right experience to help you. Make sure that they are member of Resolution, an association of family lawyers who subscribe to a code of conduct which priorities a constructive approach. Most importantly, make sure that they are someone you will have a good working relationship with.
- Treat Google with caution.
There is a wealth of information available online. If you are using this as a source of information and/or advice, make sure that the site you are using is reputable and up to date. If in doubt, seek advice from a family lawyer. You will need to live with decisions you make now for years to come and it is important to get them right.
Separation and divorce can be stressful for all members of the family. Putting the above steps into action will help to demystify and take the fear out of the process. Preparation will help your separation to proceed as smoothly as possible, protecting your children, finances and quality of life.
Jo Carr-West, Hunters (incorporating May, May & Merrimans)