STEP 1: Don’t leave the marital residence until you get the OK from your attorney.

Particularly when there are children involved or spousal support issues to consider, leaving the marital residence too soon can lead to unintended bad consequences for your case.

If domestic violence is an issue, by all means, leave--but in most other cases you are far better to consult an attorney before moving out.

Moving out is usually the “first step” to a divorce for most couples. Get started on the right foot, however, and make the first step getting the “OK” from your attorney.


STEP 2: Make a one-page summary of your finances.

TV financial guru Suze Orman is fond of saying, “Stand in your truth,” when it comes to your financial picture. Oftentimes your financial snapshot will be difficult to assemble. We’ve had client bring in shoeboxes of tax files, retirement statements, and credit card bills to their first consultation—and that’s OK.  Still others bring detailed accounting statements from their personal accountants.

If possible, jot down your finances on a one-page summary. Take a blank sheet of paper. Picture four columns running from left to write on the page: (1) type of account; (2) institution; (3) account #; and (4) balance.

Then outline your:

  • Bank accounts;
  • Car loans;
  • Home loans;
  • Credit card balances;
  • Retirement accounts; and
  • Investments.

At the bottom of the page, include your income and your spouse’s, along with the income of any businesses.

Extra Credit: Attach pay stubs and W-2 tax forms to this one-page summary.


STEP 3: Prepare your ideal parenting plan.

Every family is unique. Each family has its own way of doing things. You should begin thinking about how two parents will now parent—apart.

Coordinating work schedules, medical appointments, school and extracurricular activities, holidays, weekends, and summer breaks will need to be carefully considered.

When we meet, we can balance your drafted plan with what the courts in our area typically award.

Your creative plan will be balanced with our experience to get it done— teamwork is essential here.

Begin maintaining a journal and calendar of your role and your spouse’s role with the children. This journal will come in handy as we prepare the statutory-based custody factors that every court must consider prior to awarding custody and visitation.


STEP 4: Itemize property & debt.
 An accurate list of property and debt, along with supporting documentation, is critical to a successful transition.

General records to assemble:

•  Tax returns & pay stubs

•  Account statements (supporting docs from step 2)

•  Loan statements, including title information (cars, houses)

•  Inventory and pictures of household furnishings, etc. 


Debts to list and photocopy supporting documentation of:

•  Mortgages, equity loans, other debts

•  Car loans, debt secured by tangible assets

•  Outstanding student loans and tax obligations 


Assets to list and photocopy supporting documentation of:

•  Marital residence, real estate holdings, timeshares

•  Intangible, financial assets, like stocks and 401-Ks

•  Tangible assets, such as cars, furniture, collections

•  Business interests

Extra Credit:  Prepare a snapshot of your monthly expenses—from eating out to car insurance—it is important for your attorney to know the lifestyle you wish to maintain.


STEP 5: Gather resources, secure passwords & establish a separate bank account.

Set up a secure, separate bank account from your spouse, if you don’t already have one. Ensure the passwords to your email and social media sites are changed, and then secured.

Legal fees are an unexpected expense on most household budgets. Don’t be left at a strategic disadvantage without counsel. Ensure your share of any joint account is removed and placed into a secure, separate bank account.

The goal here is to leave both parties on equal footing, so don’t go overboard and take all of the money from a joint account.

Ensure you have enough resources to retain competent legal counsel to see you through an effective settlement negotiation.

This is the time to lean on friends and family for support.  If not now, when?


STEP 6: Don’t date—[but if you do, don’t post pictures on Facebook…]

You may have just the “right” person in mind to date…  

You’ve waited so long to be “done” with your spouse; you just need to take your mind off of everything… 

We’re just “friends” going out to dinner, anyway…  

The kids are with their grandparents, and I’ve really wanted to go see that movie…  

If that person is worth it, really, he or she will wait for you.

Look, I know divorce is tough, but don’t date until your divorce decree is final. There are strategic, legal reasons for this advice, which we’ll talk more about it as we proceed.

Trust us—don’t date.


STEP 7: Pick your “dream team.”

Divorce is one of the most, if not THE most difficult time in your life. You owe it to yourself to pick the very best team possible.

You will need loved ones, a counselor (such as a therapist or clergy person), friends, and yes, even a lawyer.

Ensure the lawyer you choose focuses on family law.  Are the attorney and staff focused on you and your unique goals for the representation? Will they ensure you move through this transition as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible? Will your attorney act as a discreet advisor, if settlement is possible? Does he or she have trial experience if settlement won’t work?

Do you have peace of mind as you leave the initial consultation? If you assemble your dream team—you’ll never regret it.



Family law matters, including divorce, support, and custody cases, require preparation.

These 7 steps will ensure you get started with confidence and peace of mind.

Don’t go it alone. The stakes are simply too high, and mistakes could be permanently damaging.

The next step is to meet with a divorce lawyer. The right guide can coach you through and ensure you achieve the goals established in your initial consultation.

Our firm is ready to help you.


H. Van Smith
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Trusted Virginia Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg