Life Lessons I Hope You Never Need
Don’t be like me.
Seriously, I mean it. Don’t make the mistakes I made.
If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are somewhere along the road toward divorce. I can’t tell you how sorry I am for that but I can tell you that it will be okay. You will eventually get through it and be happy again, but that’s not why you’re here at the moment. Survive, then thrive. Start here, by not following in my footsteps, and you will be a lot closer to thriving, sooner than you think.
I made these mistakes because I was sometimes stupid and often naive. Not until far too late did I have the knowledge to avoid these pitfalls. Hindsight and all that, but I don’t want anyone else to have to go through it. Better to avoid it from the jump is the best policy. I hope you can benefit from my mistakes, maybe have a laugh at my expense, and save yourselves some pain and heartache.
One note, my son was 3 years old when we got divorced, so you will see some areas of the article dealing with that. It may not apply to your specific situation, but everything else is useful for any situation.
*Disclaimer — This article contains no legal advice. All statements are my opinions, informed by my experiences. I encourage you to consult an attorney to advise you on your specific situation and your state’s laws.
The overriding theme of this article is protecting yourself, your rights to your children and to your property. Whether you are a man or woman, this must be your top priority. Your situation can quickly veer from “we’re working this out amicably” to something resembling scorched-earth. You can’t afford to be caught short-handed like I was. With that said, let’s get to it.
“Survive, then thrive”
Talk to an attorney immediately.
This is the most important step you can take, and almost everything else you read here flows from this first step. If it even looks like things are headed away from reconciliation and toward divorce, call an attorney immediately. Unless you are a divorce attorney yourself, you don’t know all your rights or the precautions to take, so it should be your first step. Most attorneys will do a free consultation so you can do this even if money is tight. Consider getting a second opinion as well, as it never hurts to get varying perspectives on your situation. You may be worried that seeing an attorney will escalate the situation you are in, but it’s a risk worth taking in order to be prepared.
As you have probably guessed, I did not take this step soon enough. The day the ex decided she did not want to try counselling, we agreed that we would “work things out together” regarding the divorce. I was still the trusting sort at the time, so I took her at her word. The next day, I discover she’d emptied the bank account and moved out of the house for good.
I was immediately on the back foot, wondering how I was going to pay the checks I had already written, and sobbing on the phone with my family.
I was left scrambling to find an attorney to talk with, trying to figure out my next moves and what rights I had for recouping the money and protecting myself.
If I had called an attorney earlier in the process, I would have been more prepared and less devastated when things went south. Instead, I ended up driving 3 hours to my parent’s house, where they helped me to open a new bank account and lent me the money to keep the checks from bouncing and my car from being repossessed. Pretty much the low point of my life.
Speaking of banks and money, lets move to our next point.
Protect yourself financially.
Let’s assume you have a joint bank account with your spouse. If you think that divorce is likely, open a new bank account to which only you have access. You’ll likely have to make a small deposit to open it, but the peace of mind you get knowing you have a safe place to put your money is invaluable.
Speaking of “your” money, it is extremely important to consult your attorney regarding your state’s laws. Knowing what portion of the money in the joint account is legally yours will help you protect the maximum amount you can. It may be 50%, it may be what came from your paycheck, or some other calculation may apply, so it’s imperative you find out for sure.
Once you know what is rightfully yours, consider removing your monies from the joint account and putting it into your personal account. Be mindful of outstanding bills and checks, you don’t want to have to pay overdraft fees and the like, but don’t leave that money at risk of being taken should your spouse decide to drain the account like mine did. Again, this is where the attorney can advise you on the best way to go, but at the very least, everything you bring in from this point forward should go into your personal account, not the joint one.
Protect your belongings.
You must do everything possible to protect your personal belongings!
First a bit of background. Not long after the ex moved out, I came home to find that the back door to the house had been jimmied open, and most of the stuff inside had been stolen. My son’s belongings, cash, jewelry, computers and electronics, furniture, and worst of all, my personal paperwork containing social security numbers, bank statements, etc.
I immediately called the sheriff, asking for an officer to come out so I could file a report. Much to my surprise, I was told that there was nothing to be done, because the house was still in her name too, and thus anything inside was considered “marital property”, even though she had left of her own accord. She had even called the sheriff ahead of time to let them know she was going there, then backed up a U-Haul and took what she wanted. It was a horrible feeling of violation, not to mention all the objects of material and emotional value that were gone.
The point of all this is to illustrate that anything you don’t want to lose should be somewhere other than the “marital home”. Rent a storage unit, stash it at a friend’s house, just get it out of the home, otherwise it’s free game. Consider renting a safe deposit box at the bank for important paperwork (birth certificates, passports, social security cards), cash, precious jewelry or family heirlooms. Avoid taking anything just to be spiteful, or that is clearly belonging to your spouse, but you also don’t want to regret leaving something exposed, once it’s already out of your reach.
File a time-sharing agreement for your children.
My biggest regret came from not having this in place, but in my worst nightmares I never foresaw that the ex would place our son in the middle of our dispute. We had verbally agreed to share custody during the divorce process, one week at a time. Our son was in daycare as we both worked, so we each picked him up there at the start of our designated weeks with him. One day I walked in to daycare to get him, and he wasn’t there. I called the ex and she said she was keeping him and that he wasn’t safe with me (more on that in the next item).
Long story made short, it ended up being 45 days before I saw or talked to my 3 year old son again. I even tried to file a missing person report and was rebuffed by the cops because she was his mother and there was no court document stating the time-sharing agreement.
The lesson here is to immediately have your attorney file a time-sharing agreement with the court. Even if you and your spouse have not agreed to anything yet, create a plan using the terms you want to have in place (usually a 50/50 split is the best you can hope for). That way there will be an official court proceeding started, it will force your spouse to come to the table and the respective attorneys can hammer out the details.
Without such a document, my experience shows that it is incredibly difficult to get your child back if they refuse to allow you to see them. As I’ve said multiple times, consult your attorney and let them work on this for you, to make sure that you abide by your state’s laws and let them work for you. No matter what, don’t abdicate your part in their lives, it is absolutely crucial you are there for your children during this time of upheaval.
During your designated time with your child, it is imperative that you document everything. It may seem excessive, but try to keep a journal of what you do together, especially when it comes to the child’s health and well-being. Be proactive in communicating with your spouse about anything that might be a concern. If he has a cold or she falls and bumps her head, write it down and take pictures to show what happened, then make sure you have it in writing (email counts as writing in this case, and because it is a permanent record, it is the preferable way to communicate with your spouse).
Why do I make such a big deal about this? In my case, it became the biggest single heartache of the entire process.
One of the days with my son (before the upheaval mentioned in the last item), I took him to a spring-training baseball game. Being that it was Florida in the spring, I of course covered his face and exposed skin with sunblock. Apparently I missed a spot, because the next day he had a sunburn near his temple that was the length and width of a finger. I thought nothing of it because it was just a sunburn, and dropped him off at daycare, where the ex would pick him up to start her week that evening. Come to find out, she saw the sunburn and took him to the hospital, where she claimed I was abusing him. She asked to see a social worker and claimed that I was violent and abusive to our son, solely on the basis of the sunburn which she said was a mark from me striking him.
This resulted in a DCF investigation that could have led to me losing custody completely, had I not vigorously fought against it. I had to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops one would expect before I was ultimately cleared with no evidence of any wrongdoing found.
If I had documented everything and clearly communicated to the ex what the mark was and how it occurred, there would have been at least a chance of avoiding the whole thing. But because I didn’t do that, she had the basis to try to keep him away from me, resulting in the debacle I described in item 4. So please, I’m begging you, protect yourself in any way you possibly can. No detail is too small, no precaution too excessive if the day comes where you are at risk of losing your children.
Don’t be afraid to go to court.
During a divorce proceeding, you will inevitably be in court. If you’re lucky, it will be one time only, and that for finalizing the paperwork. But if your spouse tries to make things difficult by making spurious claims or filing motions to restrict your rights, you must be ready to defend yourself. Do not be afraid to go to court, and make sure your attorney isn’t either. Sure it can be expensive, but not doing it can be even more costly.
One of the tactics employed by my ex was to file a restraining order against me, claiming I was violent and that I should not have custody of our son as a result. I was served this order at my office by a sheriff, so if I had been afraid to go to court, she would have succeeded in barring me from my son, and would have been able to use it against me later in the divorce process.
Thank you for reading this article, and please consider sharing it with someone whom it might benefit. I hope it helps those who are going through a divorce to have an easier road of it. Ask for help if you need it, mental health is as important as anything in surviving a divorce. There’s no shame in admitting you need to talk to someone; you need to still be you on the other side of this process.