So you have the divorce decree. Now what? Just because you signed the papers, your divorce may not necessarily be over. Therefore, you should follow the steps in this post-divorce checklist.
But first, take a breath. Congratulations on getting this far! Enjoy a nice glass of wine, and take a day or two to relax. But do not get too comfortable. You still have a lot of work to do.
Even though you have come to a settlement, a judge has to sign off and officially declare you divorced. Depending on where you live, this process may take several months. Just about anything involving the court tends to take much longer than you would expect.
Your post-divorce tasks roughly fall into two categories:
1. Ensure you get (and give up) everything you agreed to.
2. Update all of your accounts, in order to ensure they reflect your new reality.
Step One: Study Your Settlement
The first step is to gather your final divorce settlement, a notepad, and your calendar. You should read—and take notes about—everything in the divorce settlement that either you or your ex-spouse need to complete. This step may involve transferring money or assets, setting up custody schedules, or completing a QDRO.
Hopefully, there are no surprises when you read the final settlement. That said, you need to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. In other words, you need to take a complete inventory of everything you need to do.
Create a Calendar
Most divorce settlements have many, many dates. Some dates may occur annually over the next ten years, while others may occur over the next ten days. It may be a challenge to stay on top of all the various dates, so it is essential to stay organized.
If you do not have a great calendar system yet, now is the time to develop one. Each one of these items needs to be clearly documented now. For instance, you need to make sure that accounts are transferred to daily custody, and that final payments are made years down the line.
Step Two: Set Up Your New Life
Many people fail to properly set up their new life, because it requires a lot of elements that most people do not think about. And to be quite honest, most of the things I am going to discuss below are pretty tedious.
However, they are also very, very important to complete. As you work through these documents, you may need two glasses of wine. (Hey, you might need a bottle).
Just do them. Seriously.
Check Your Credit Report
Always review your credit report, and ensure that everything makes sense on it. If there is an issue, get on it right away.
Close any joint accounts that are open, EVEN IF they have a $0 balance. Many years later, joint accounts can come back to haunt you. If a joint account cannot be closed due to an outstanding balance, see if you can freeze it. Most lenders are pretty willing to help when you have a divorce settlement in hand.
Set Up New Financial Accounts
After your divorce, it is wise to set up new bank accounts and other financial accounts. Your ex-spouse may have access to all of your existing account numbers, social security number, favorite pet’s name, and all the traditional security questions that most financial institutions ask.
A vindictive (or a financially strapped) ex-spouse may try to access those prior accounts. You may not think it would ever happen to you—until it does.
Update Your Will and Estate Planning Documents
Estate planning is the process for understanding what you want to happen if a) you die or b) you are incapacitated. It is not a lot of fun to think about, but where do you want your assets to end up if something happens to you? Do you want to leave everything to your ex-spouse, or do you want a random judge making decisions for you?
You may have a will, a healthcare proxy, powers of attorney, trusts, and other documents related to your assets and wishes. Everyone is unique. You should review whatever plans you have any time you have a major life event, such as getting divorced. It is not fun, but you need to find a local estate planning attorney who can help you.
Check the beneficiary on EVERY financial account.
Your bank account, retirement account, insurance policies, and pension plans have a beneficiary attached to it. The beneficiary is simply the person (or people) who would receive the funds in those accounts, should you pass away.
By default, when you are married, that beneficiary is usually your spouse. Now that your spouse is your ex-spouse, you should change your beneficiaries. It could be your children, siblings, friends, charities, or anyone else. It is up to you.
For every account you have, check to see who the beneficiaries are. Have your documents updated if they do not meet your wishes. Usually, it is not a very difficult process. It just involves calling up the institutions and filling out the forms they provide. Nonetheless, it has to be done.
Speak with a Financial Advisor
Now is a good time to make a financial plan. If you already have one, you should update it. You are probably living on a lower income than you had before the divorce, so you need to plan for retirement, your kid’s college tuition, the purchase of a new home, and other life events.
Speak with an Accountant
The year you are considered divorced for tax purposes, your taxes will change. To ensure you do not miss anything major, determine your plans from a tax perspective. Even if you file your taxes by using the major software programs, it is worth at least consulting with an accountant to ensure that you are on the right path.
Most importantly, try to enjoy your new life.