An Overview
of Divorce
No one goes into marriage thinking it will end in divorce. You get married
and you picture a happily ever after. You know you and your spouse will have
problems but you know you’ll overcome them together—until the time comes
when those problems amount to more than you can bear.
While our marriages and divorces have been on different grounds, we go
through many of the same things, including the legal decisions about what to
do with property, debt and most of all, children. This guidebook is designed
to give a high level overview of the divorce process so you can make informed
We hope this guidebook will provide a valuable first step in finding clarity and
relief for your legal concerns. If you have additional questions after reading this
document, your ARAG® legal plan can help. If you have ideas on how to improve
this document, please share them with us at [email protected]
If you’re not an ARAG member, please feel free to review this information and
contact us to learn how ARAG can offer you affordable legal resources and
Table of Contents
The Decision to Get Divorced
Options for Terminating the Marriage
How Are Property and Debts Divided at Divorce?
Child Custody
Child Support
Parenting Agreements
Let Us Help You
Preparing to Meet Your Attorney
Resources for More Information
ARAG Customer Care Team
2 • 800-247-4184
The Decision to Get Divorced
Contested divorce means the couple is unable to agree on the terms of the
divorce and the court will need to hear from both parties and make decisions
based on law.
A divorce causes more than emotional trauma: it can often lead to financial
devastation as well. Here are a few questions to ask that may help avoid some
of the most common post-divorce financial problems. While the answers may
not be quick or easy, working through them early in the separation process can
help avoid bigger issues later on.
Community property includes everything earned during marriage and
everything acquired with those earnings. All debts incurred during marriage,
unless the creditor was specifically looking to the separate property of one
spouse for payment, are community property debts.
Mediation/Arbitration. A neutral third-party couples can use to negotiate
an acceptable divorce agreement. A mediator negotiates and eases
communication but doesn’t make decisions for either party. An arbitrator will
listen to the facts and decides the case, just as a judge would.
Separate property includes gifts and inheritances given just to that spouse,
personal injury awards received by that spouse, and the proceeds of a pension
that vested (that is, the pensioner became legally entitled to receive it) before
Uncontested divorce means the couple generally agrees about the terms of
the divorce and the court will not need to make decisions such as how property
is divided.
Is divorce really the only option left? Before filing for divorce, ask if it is really,
truly the most fitting choice. Are reconciling and building a prosperous future
simply not a possibility? Consider not just the emotional effects but the shortand long-term financial consequences. Moving forward without cautious
consideration can lead to mismanaged finances or financial ruin.
If your reason for seeking a divorce includes verbal, physical or mental abuse
of you or your children, do you have supporting documentation? Consider
documenting those specific events for potential use in the court case.
Documentation includes:
Police reports
Medical records
Written record of interactions with the abuser (dates, times, violations
of court orders)
These issues can, in certain jurisdictions, make a meaningful difference in the
result of the case, especially in determining child custody.
4 • 800-247-4184
If There is Domestic Violence
Domestic abuse is never acceptable. If abuse has been going on for a while,
it will usually not stop on its own. While it may be difficult, if you or someone
you know, is in an abusive relationship, it’s important to acknowledge what
is happening and take steps to contact an attorney or a domestic violence
counselor and follow his or her advice on approaching the abusive spouse. For
local resources, check out what’s available in your state.
Do you have copies of major financial documents?
Preparing for divorce requires gathering all relevant documents related to
your bank and brokerage accounts, tax returns, mortgage loans, joint savings
and checking statements, insurance policies, investment reports, credit card
statements, and a recent credit report. Watch the mail for statements from
banks, credit card companies and the like.
Once collected, make copies and store them somewhere secure in case the
originals aren’t accessible later. (Keep in mind that a safe deposit box may not
be secure if you and your spouse both have access.)
Free Annual Credit Report
Take the time to request a free credit report, which you are allowed once every
12 months from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies:
Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The only official site to help consumers to
obtain their free credit report is
helpful to learn early on if your standard of living is going to decrease after
the divorce so that you can plan and act accordingly.
How can you reduce expenses now before divorce?
It’s generally in the best interests of both parties to reduce credit card debt and
other liabilities before the divorce and establish individual credit histories. This
includes closing joint credit cards and bank accounts, and if possible, opening
separate personal accounts. Closing joint accounts will prevent one spouse
from depleting the bank account or running up charges on a credit card, and is
a step toward protecting individual assets to prepare for being single.
Research divorce professionals in the area
Take the time to look for an attorney and find someone compatible. Divorce
can be a difficult and emotional journey and the right attorney can help make
that easier.
Remember pre-divorce and divorce planning is not about taking your spouse
for all you can. It’s about making smart choices with a clear mind. It involves
carefully planning out all aspects of your life from where you are now to where
you would like to be. When both parties can talk reasonably and respectfully
about the issues, everyone fares better— faster—both emotionally and
It can be helpful to have a clear picture of your credit history in case you need
to manage or improve your situation before you are on your own. Your credit
history affects your ability to get credit cards and loans later.
Have you done a new budget?
Along with knowing the big financial picture, you will need to figure out a new
budget. Be realistic about the amount of money required to cover ongoing
expenses. You may want to create a spreadsheet to get a clearer picture. It’s
6 • 800-247-4184
Options for Terminating the Marriage
Divorce is the legal termination of the marriage and all rights and
responsibilities associated with it. Divorce can be either contested or
uncontested. In an uncontested divorce, the couple generally agrees about
the terms of the divorce and the court will not need to make decisions such
as how property is divided. Contested means the couple does not agree
about the terms and the court will need to hear from both parties and make
decisions based on law.
Whether you both agree on the terms of the divorce or have many items up
in the air, it’s generally wise to consult with an attorney when entering a
divorce. State laws, as well as individual circumstances, vary greatly, and
checking in with an attorney familiar with the laws in your state can save time,
effort and money. If children are involved, it’s important to work with someone
experienced on the complicated issues regarding custody and the payment
of child support. Each state has child support guidelines which need to be
followed. (It is not simply up to the couple to decide on their own.)
When a couple says they have “separated,” it typically means one of four
different kinds of separations. How a couple is separated can have important
affects on property ownership:
• Trial separation is when a couple lives apart temporarily in order to decide
whether to separate permanently. Even if they don’t get back together, the
assets and debts accumulated during the trial period are usually considered
marital property. Trial separation is not usually recognized as a legal
separation, that is, the couple is still responsible for each other as if they
were married.
• Living apart. In some states, separating without intending to reunite
changes the spouses’ property rights; that is, property accumulated and
debts incurred while living apart are considered to be separate property or
debt of the person who accumulated or incurred it.
• Permanent separation is when a couple decides to permanently split up. In
most states, assets and debts accumulated after permanent separation are
the separate property of the spouse acquiring them. However, debts that
happen after separation and before divorce may be joint debts if they are
incurred for certain necessities, such as to provide for the children.
• Legal separation results when the parties separate and a court rules on
the division of property, alimony, child support, custody, and visitation—but
does not grant a divorce. This isn’t very common, but there are situations
where spouses don’t want to divorce for religious, financial, personal
reasons or other reasons, but do want the certainty of a court order that
says they’re separated and addresses many of the issues that would be
decided in a divorce.
While divorce is a legal termination of a marriage, an annulment is a legal
ruling that the marriage never existed. There are two types of annulment:
civil annulment (granted by the state government after a court proceeding)
and religious annulment (granted by a church). The grounds for religious
annulments are different than for civil annulments.
In most states, the grounds for annulling a marriage are very limited. Grounds
for civil annulment vary by state but generally include: Underage at the time of the marriage
Prior divorce within 30 days of the marriage
Mental Illness
Fraud, duress, or force
Marriage occurred prior to expiration of state mandated waiting period • 800-247-4184
When a couple decides to use a neutral third-party to negotiate an acceptable
divorce agreement, they can choose either a mediator or arbitrator, depending
on their jurisdiction. A mediator negotiates and eases communication but
doesn’t make decisions for either party. When states allow use of an arbitrator,
he or she will listen to the facts and decide the case, just as a judge would.
Mediation and arbitration in many cases may take less time, cost less, and
result in a more agreeable decision than going through the courts. Proponents
of mediation, specifically, believe it helps improve communication and the
future relationship if the couple have children.
In other cases, however, the couple may have a difficult time negotiating
directly with each other, even with the help of a third party. If you decide
to mediate or arbitrate, you may still be represented by or consult with an
attorney and the attorney can play an active role in guiding the case through
mediation or arbitration. Many couples find it helpful to work with an
attorney who, at a minimum, can offer legal advice and review the settlement
agreement before it is signed.
Collaborative Divorce
A new alternative in some states to ending a marriage is through a method
called “collaborative practice.” Typically, each spouse retains an attorney and
signs an agreement that they will not go to court but will share information
openly to work toward a settlement.
This is a viable option for couples who want to avoid a costly, time-intensive
court divorce, yet who have issues to address. They may have complicated
disputes that benefit from an attorney’s advice on what’s best for them. This
option is not available in all states. When the couple finally agrees on the
terms of their divorce, their attorneys typically draft the decree for signature
by a judge.
How Are Property and Debts Divided at Divorce?
If a couple don’t agree on how to divide property between themselves, they
can submit the property dispute to the court. The courts will treat both debt
and property based on whether it is a community property state or equitable
distribution state.
Community property
Each state varies how it will handle property in a divorce. In a community
property state, all property of a married person is classified as either
community property (owned equally by both spouses) or the separate property
of one spouse. At divorce, community property is generally divided equally
between the spouses, while each spouse keeps his or her separate property.
• Community property includes everything earned during marriage and
everything acquired with those earnings. All debts incurred during marriage,
unless the creditor was specifically looking to the separate property of one
spouse for payment, are community property debts.
• Separate property includes gifts and inheritances given just to that spouse,
personal injury awards received by that spouse, and the proceeds of a
pension that vested (that is, the pensioner became legally entitled to receive
it) before marriage.
• Property purchased with a combination of separate and community
funds is part community and part separate property, so long as a spouse
is able to show that some separate funds were used. Separate property
mixed together with community property generally becomes community
Equitable distribution
In non-community property states, assets and earnings accumulated during
marriage are divided equitably (fairly), but not necessarily equally. In some of
those states, the judge may order one party to use separate property to make
the settlement fair to both spouses. • 800-247-4184
Who gets to stay in the house?
• If children are involved, there are a variety of factors considered in
determining who, if anyone, will remain in the marital home. Many times,
parents consider the impact on the children and consider options that
provide the least disruption for them as possible.
As with most issues in your divorce, you and your spouse can typically agree
to the amount and length of time alimony will be paid. But if you can’t agree, a
court will set the terms for you.
• If you don’t have children and the house is the separate property of just one
spouse, that spouse has the legal right to ask the other to leave.
• If you don’t have children and you own the house together, neither spouse
has a legal right to kick the other out. One can request that the other person
leave, but no one can require it. If you and your spouse don’t come to a
decision, the court will decide for you during divorce proceedings or earlier,
if you ask for a temporary order on the issue.
While less frequently granted, alimony can still be awarded when one spouse
makes substantially more than the other and the couple has been married for
several years. Alimony is less frequently awarded for couples who make similar
incomes or who have been married for a short time.
If alimony is ordered, it is generally a set amount paid monthly. Many factors
are used in determining how long a party will be responsible for paying alimony
such as:
A date set by a judge several years in the future
The receiving party remarries
The children no longer need a full-time parent at home
A judge determines that, after a reasonable period of time, the
receiving party has not made a sufficient effort to become at least
partially self-supporting
Some other significant event—such as retirement—occurs, convincing a
judge to modify the amount paid
One party dies
12 • 800-247-4184
Child Custody
There are a variety of child custody scenarios and it can be helpful to
understand the different terminology used when this issue is discussed.
Split Custody is where custody is shared equally or at least one parent has
substantially more time with the children than the other. In many cases this
exists when one parent is the custodial parent during the school year and the
other during summer vacation.
Legal Custody refers to the right and obligation of a parent to make decisions
regarding the child’s upbringing. These decisions include items such as,
where a child will attend school, (private school, public education, or home
schooling), the medical care they receive and what religion they will be
brought up with. It also relates to the general welfare of the child.
Physical Custody refers to the day-to-day care of the child and where the child
will live.
The rules regarding legal and physical custody vary by state and individual
circumstance so it is generally wise to involve experienced legal counsel
to ensure the best outcome for the children involved. When it comes to
deciding legal and physical custody of the children, courts can and do make
any number of arrangements. Some parents may share physical custody but
not legal; some may share legal custody but physical custody may be split
to accommodate living with one parent while going to school and visiting
the other parent in the summer. Here are some of the terms related to how
custody is divided:
Sole custody means only one parent has the legal capacity to act on the child’s
behalf. In physical custody, this often means the child spends all, or a majority
of time with this parent.
Joint Custody means both parents share joint legal custody and joint
physical custody. This arrangement can be established either by a parenting
agreement, or it can be ordered by the judge. The decree or agreement also
typically outlines arrangements for financial support and expenses outside
of child support.
14 • 800-247-4184
Child Support
Parenting Agreements
Child support is not the same as child custody or visitation. Every parent has an
obligation to support his or her children. It varies by state but typically, parents
must support a child until:
A written parenting agreement or parenting plan defines how both parents
are going to share time and decision making regarding the children. It helps
set the stage for a successful post-divorce relationship because it sets clear
expectations, which in turn can reduce conflict. Creating an agreement allows
both parents to discuss the issues and how you want to handle them.
the child reaches the age of majority (and sometimes longer if the child
has special needs or is in college)
the child marries
the child is on active military duty
the parents’ rights and responsibilities are terminated (for example,
when a child is adopted), or
the child has been declared emancipated by a court. (Emancipation can
occur when a minor has demonstrated freedom from parental control or
support and an ability to be self-supporting.)
Each state has guidelines to calculate a range of child support to be paid,
based on the parents’ incomes and expenses. These guidelines vary by state,
but in all cases must be followed by both parents.
The guidelines generally help determine who pays child support and how
much. Factors usually include:
the income or potential income of the parents
the custody arrangement
Your parenting agreement can be made into a court order too, so that you can
enforce it if your ex-spouse doesn’t live up to its terms. Topics you should cover
in writing your agreement include issues such as:
custody and living arrangements
financial issues (child support and expenses)
medical care
religious training
How to Create a Parenting Agreement.
You can work with your ex-spouse to negotiate and write down a parenting
agreement yourselves or you can seek the help of a child custody mediator or
other specialist. the number of children the parents must support
Once the agreement is complete, it’s a good idea to make the agreement part
of your divorce file and have the judge approve it. The document might be
part of your final settlement agreement or you might file it separately but,
either way, have the judge sign the agreement, making it a court order and,
consequently, enforceable.
16 • 800-247-4184
How Parents Can Help Children with the Transition
Even in the most “kindly” of divorces, children have no say in what’s going on
and are greatly affected. Even if they know they are loved by both parents, it
usually takes many years for children to understand the situation.
The good thing is that the majority of children do adapt. Here are a few
considerations for parents to help with the transition.
• Reliability and punctuality are of utmost importance to a child. Once
visitation arrangements have been made it’s important that both parents
honor that commitment. If a parent doesn’t show up or creates reasons
why the child can’t see the opposite parent, the child will feel let down and
resentful. In a child’s eyes it’s your time with them that’s most important
even after the divorce.
Changing Your Name
In most states, you can request that the judge handling your divorce make
a formal order restoring your former or birth name. You’ll want to get
certified copies of the order as proof of the name change. Once you have this
official documentation, you can use it to have your name changed on your
identification and personal records.
If your divorce decree doesn’t contain an order restoring your former name,
check to see if it can be modified to include language restoring your name. In
some states, this is possible even after the divorce is final. Alternately, you can
bring a separate action to restore your name.
• Never talk poorly about the other parent in front of your child. This creates
resentment and bad feelings all around.
• Never think that gifts can make up for being consistently late or failing to
follow through with your promises. Although you may think that you are
doing well for buying your child a toy to impress them, it’s better to keep that
special toy for a birthday or Christmas present. Your time to be with them is
much more valuable than a toy. Quality time rather than quantity of toys is
far more important to a child.
• Negotiate custody with your child’s interests as the sole intention. One of
the worst experiences a child can suffer in a divorce is when warring parents
fight about him or her in a drawn out custody battle.
Initially, children likely wish that their parents were still together, but as time
goes by, often they will accept the divorce. Be honest with your child. Watch
for signs that they may be having a hard time with the issues and be open to
counseling for that child or for you and that child when they need it. Being
there for your child and understanding the situation from their perspective will
help them move forward.
18 • 800-247-4184
Let us help you
If you need additional help or
guidance, ARAG is here for you.
Simply contact a Customer Care
Specialist who can help you
understand the benefits available
to you. For more information:
Visit the Education Center at:, call
1-800-247-4184 or email
[email protected]
20 • 800-247-4184
Preparing to Meet Your Attorney
If you decide to consult an attorney about your legal matters, we suggest you
complete the following worksheet prior to your meeting. By preparing this
information ahead of time, you have the opportunity to clearly think through
your needs and the attorney will have the necessary information to provide
you with the highest level of legal service.
Start by thinking about your current situation, the communications you have
received and any history you have about the legal matter. Summarize your
legal needs in a few sentences. Use this as a starting point when you make your
first phone call to an attorney.
22 • 800-247-4184
List the names, dates and pertinent details about your legal matter so you will
be ready to discuss it with your attorney either over the phone or during an
in-office visit.
List and attach any documents or background information you think will be
helpful in the first meeting with an attorney.
Resources for More Information
The following were used as resources in developing this guidebook and
provide additional resources:
24 • 800-247-4184
Six Legal Documents to Update Now
Updating documents and named advisors is important because so often the
spouse is the named emergency contact, (or the contact most state laws
would default to). A current point-person needs to be named for decisions
relating to minor children, health and finances. In addition to the following
legal documents, you may want to update beneficiary information in your life
insurance policies, 401(k) plans, and others.
Update these six legal documents:
Standby Guardian – Appoints a temporary guardian for minor children.
Health Care Proxy – Appoints a person for healthcare related decisions.
Living Will – Indicates end of life related healthcare wishes (in the case
of a vegetative state).
Funeral Directive – Indicates funeral related arrangements and appoints
a person responsible for enacting the plan.
Durable Power of Attorney – Appoints an agent for financial related
Will or Trust– Describes how property and assets will be distributed.
26 • 800-247-4184
Four Questions to Ask About Debt
How you handle debt during your marriage can make a big impact on your
credit. Here are four questions to help you determine what to do in your
How will your state laws affect you?
If you live in a community property state, both spouses may be held
responsible for debts incurred during the marriage, regardless of whose name
is on the account. A community property state is one in which all property
acquired by a husband and wife during their marriage becomes joint property
even if it was acquired in the name of only one partner.
What you can do: Make sure you know what debts both you and your
spouse have. If you think there may be accounts you are listed on, yet don’t
know about, get a copy of your credit report and ask your spouse about any
accounts you don’t recognize.
How much debt can you pay off while you’re still married?
Ideally, try to pay off as many joint debts as possible before the divorce is
finalized. This makes settlement negotiations easier and helps make for
a cleaner break. However, this is not always possible due to other debts,
including spousal and child support. When you are getting divorced figure out
who can realistically make payments on any accounts on which you’re listed.
What you can do: Consider closing joint accounts (including credit cards
and bank accounts) that were opened in both of your names and remove
your spouse as an authorized user on your own accounts. You also may
want to ask the creditor to convert these accounts to individual accounts.
Remember, creditors aren’t obligated to convert such accounts, so you
may need to apply for credit on an individual basis. The creditor will then
extend or deny you credit based on your new application.
Post-divorce, remember that creditors do not have to follow your divorce
decree. They can try to collect from anyone listed on the account. Knowing
this ahead of time may make you view the distribution of debt differently. Make
sure your divorce decree includes a provision that will protect you and require
that you’re reimbursed if your ex defaults on a separate account.
How will you be affected by debt after divorce?
If paying off the debts or converting joint accounts to individual accounts
during the divorce wasn’t possible, be sure to monitor the accounts that you
are responsible for. If you notice that payments are being made late, you might
consider making the payments yourself to protect your credit. Bad marks can
stay on your credit report for seven years.
What you can do: Talk to your ex-spouse to see if you can help with
payments. While this may not always work, if you both can talk about it, it
will save credit scores. If your divorce decree says that your ex-spouse has
to reimburse you if you paid debt he or she was responsible for, then you
can take them back to court to get that payment. Remember, however,
that process will take time, energy and money paid for attorney fees.
What will you do with the larger debts?
Don’t expect a mortgage or vehicle lender to be willing to simply take your
spouse’s name off the loan. As long as your name appears on the original
contract, both parties are legally responsible for making payments regardless
of who possesses the property.
What you can do: Keep in mind that signing a quit claim deed or having
a spouse sign one does not dissolve either party’s obligation to pay a
mortgage. When you sign a quit claim deed, you are signing away any legal
rights to claim any equity in the home – you are not walking away from the
responsibility to meet the payment obligations you originally agreed to.
Many individuals have discovered the hard way that a quit claim deed does • 800-247-4184
not protect them from credit damage when their ex-spouse defaults on
the home loan they once shared.
Divorce and the aftermath are never easy. Be aware of what can happen and
try to protect yourself as much as possible. You don’t want to find out when
you go to apply for that car loan that your ex-spouse hasn’t paid debts and
you’ll pay a higher interest rate because of a poor credit rating. As always, your
situation may differ so it’s best to consult an attorney as you work through the
This publication is provided as educational material only. While every effort has been
made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended as legal advice as
individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.
© 2014 ARAG North America, Inc.