Things weren’t great when your service member deployed. As the months went by, he or she became more distant, more businesslike, more disinterested. Then your service member announced that the marriage is over and that you should consider yourself “left.” There are months left to this deployment: What do you do now?
There are many things the spouse can do to prepare for a divorce. This time apart from the service member can be very valuable -- both from a legal perspective and from an emotional perspective. These six steps can be taken before the service member returns and will help whether you divorce or eventually reconcile:
Step 1: Consult an attorney.
Many folks are apprehensive about consulting with an attorney, but they shouldn’t be. Think of a consultation like a job interview -- for the attorney! Just because you have a consultation with an attorney, does not mean that you need to hire that particular attorney or file any court documents.
Most consultations take about an hour. This can be one of the most beneficial hours you spend over the next few months. You can learn about divorce in your state and how best to set up your case. It is particularly important to figure out how not to waste the time you still have while your spouse is deployed.
Plus, if you don’t like the attorney, you can simply schedule another consultation with a different attorney. This should be a research and information gathering task only. You needn’t be stressed or pressured to do anything at this point.
Step 2: Find a counselor.
As an active-duty military spouse, there is free counseling available to you through Military OneSource. There are often programs and counselors at your local post or base -- but only BEFORE you divorce.
The emotional issues you will deal with after learning that your spouse is leaving -- particularly if infidelity is involved -- can be overwhelming. On top of that, there are often children who still need to be cared for and confusing feelings of stress, anger or worry about the service member who remains in harm’s way.
Speaking to a counselor can be a very useful outlet to assist in getting through this difficult time and it can be a wonderful way to actually begin the healing process long before the service member even returns.
Step 3: Gather Documents.
A good general rule is that you can never have too much information or be too educated in readying yourself for a divorce. A service member who deploys normally doesn’t take with him many of the important documents in the home dealing with finances, insurance, and other legal documents with regard to the house, cars and investments. Similarly, mail continues to be delivered and there are monthly statements that further explain the financial situation of the household.
After speaking with an attorney and learning about what documents are important in your case, you can, in a relaxed and uninhibited manner, begin searching for, researching and collecting these important legal and financial documents. You can make copies of everything and give the copies to an attorney or even a trusted friend -- and these documents will come in handy during the discovery process or much later and if necessary, at trial.
Step 4: Follow the Money.
As you gather the important documents such as mortgage statements, deeds and titles to homes, titles to cars, monthly bills and financial statements, among many other items, it is a good idea to figure out exactly how much money is necessary each month to keep the household running.
One of the hardest parts of any divorce case is realizing that the income or incomes that provided for one household will soon be paying for two. Sitting down and creating a budget can be extremely beneficial and is something you can also bring to your attorney’s attention so that he or she can help set realistic goals and strategies for your case.
In addition to getting a handle on the finances and budgets, saving money during this time can be especially prudent. You will want to speak with an attorney about this, but if you can put aside money for yourself and your case, this can be very helpful, particularly if your spouse tries to do something wicked or nefarious.
It is important to note that this can be a particularly thorny legal issue and you do not want to be accused of stealing or hiding money during your case. Speaking with an attorney about this issue beforehand is very helpful to stay within the parameters of your state’s laws.
Step 5: Begin the Separation.
Many states require a divorcing couple to be “separated” for a specific period of time before the final divorce is granted by the court. In Virginia, for example, if there are minor children, a couple must be separated for 12 months before a court will grant the divorce.
By consulting an attorney, a spouse in this situation can properly begin the separation period and actually use this time apart to count toward the “separation period." If done correctly, the spouse does not have to wait until the service member returns to start the clock.
Step 6: The Rest Of Your Life.
One of the benefits to living several thousand miles apart from your spouse while going through this process is that you can create pockets of time to begin contemplating where you want to be 10 years from now.
As hard as it may be to think about moving on, particularly in the early stages of learning your spouse wants a divorce, it can be extremely valuable to think about your life and your children’s lives. What do you want to create for them several years down the road?
This doesn’t just mean “geographics,” as in, where do you physically want to live. This includes many wonderful benefits afforded to service members such as: Post 9/11 GI Bill, service members’ Group Life Insurance, Thrift Savings Plan, military pensions and the Survivor Benefit Plan, to name a few.
Using this time wisely and speaking with an attorney early on about your case can be extremely beneficial and place you way ahead of your spouse when it comes time to negotiate for these and many other benefits -- either for yourself or for your kids.
Even though being “left” by your service member during a deployment is emotionally devastating, you do not have to sit idly by and feel like the victim. By following these six steps, you can take action and set your case up for success by using the time to take control of the situation and to seek constructive support -- thereby benefiting your legal case and your mental health.
Matt Hamel is a divorce attorney in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and the founder of Military Divorce, P.C. He is also a Navy JAG reservist attorney who completed six years of active duty and deployed to Iraq during the surge (2007-2008).
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