Making the decision to pursue a divorce in North Carolina (or any other state for that matter) is no small undertaking. And while there are lots of legal considerations that you may need to be aware of, there are many practical considerations as well. Here are just a few of the questions that we frequently get asked early on in the process:
- Can I leave the marital home?
- What financial information will I need to gather?
- Can I record phone calls with my spouse?
- Where will I live?
- Can I date after separation?
- Do I need to hire a divorce lawyer?
The purpose of this post is to try to answer as many of these questions about divorce in North Carolina as we can so that you can begin the process of planning for separation and moving on with your life, regardless of whether you are the person seeking the divorce or not. (North Carolina is a no-fault state, so if you are trying to save your marriage and your spouse wants out, you can delay the process but you can’t stop it altogether).
Divorce is a huge, life-changing event. And whether you like it or not, if you try to ignore the process or take a nonchalant approach to divorce, you are likely to get taken advantage of in the process. This is a serious event and requires a significant amount of energy and focus to get through.
That being said, a divorce (at least in North Carolina), is a marathon and not a sprint. The entire process is likely to take anywhere from 15-18 months from beginning to end, perhaps even longer. Many people plan for the legal separation for many months or even years before they actually separate from their spouse. And then you must be separated for a minimum of 12 months before either one of you can file for divorce, and that process takes 2-3 months to finalize.
So what can you do to maximize your chances of coming through this process relatively unscathed? That’s why we wrote this article (and this book).
Control What You Can Control
You can’t always control everything about the divorce process. And if you are blindsided by the divorce, you may not be able to control a whole lot. But there are some things you can do NOW, to put yourself in the best possible position for success.
You need to gather as much information as possible. This includes financial records, credit card statements, bank account statements, retirement accounts, pay stubs, tax returns, etc. Here is a list of documents that we tell all of our clients to gather at the beginning of each new engagement:
- Bank account statements for the past 12 months;
- Credit card statements for the past 12 months;
- Retirement account statements for the past 12 months;
- Stock option agreements;
- Paystubs for the past 6 months;
- Invoices for the payment of children’s activities;
- Documents related to health insurance and medical expenses;
- Your estate planning documents;
- Documents for life insurance, including term and whole life policies;
- 529 Accounts for the kids;
- Social Security Cards;
- Tax Returns (business and personal) for the past 3 years;
- K-1’s and W-2’s for the past 3 years;
- Passports for you and the kids (especially if you believe your spouse will flee with the kids overseas);
It is amazing how quickly all of these documents will disappear once you or your spouse decide to separate. And, once you do separate you will not be allowed into the other person’s residence, so it is important to gather this information before one of you moves out.
Plan Your Separation
Although the divorce process can take a significant amount of time, the most stressful cases occur when parties separate before they reach a formal agreement about how they are going to divide up their assets, provide for spousal support, and co-parent the children. In North Carolina, these decisions are frequently codified in a formal separation agreement and property settlement that is notarized by each party.
Although you must be physically separated for at least one year in North Carolina to obtain a divorce, a separation agreement will sever all of your marital rights and contractually end your marriage during the term of your separation. So although you won’t be legally divorced, you will be contractually separated from one another and all of your financial and custodial issues can be resolved with a separation agreement.
That being said, it is important that you plan out your separation. A bad choice is to get in an argument with your spouse, pack a bag, and leave indefinitely. A more appropriate choice is to negotiate and execute a formal separation agreement and then physically separate at the same time.
Once you are ready to separate, whether you have an agreement in place or not, here are some practical considerations you should be thinking about as you look for a new place to live.
- It is not necessary to buy right away. Many people think they need to run out and buy a new home immediately. In many cases, this isn’t necessary, or even prudent. When you separate from your spouse, the most important thing is to find a clean, safe place to live that provides enough room for you and your kids (if you have them). You don’t want to rent a studio apartment if you have three kids – doing so could limit the amount of custody time you will have with your children.
- Consider Downsizing. A legal separation is a great chance to start over. Some people decide to divorce because of financial issues with their spouse. When you separate, you can find a less expensive place to live, save yourself some money, and get a financial fresh start. However, make sure you talk to a lawyer first. If you haven’t resolved spousal support issues, finding a less expensive place to live could adversely impact your need or your ability to pay if alimony is an issue in your case.
- Don’t forget school districts. This is one area where it is vitally important that you and your spouse are on the same page. You may decide that it is important to move into a different school district for middle school or high school. If you want to change districts, both of you need to agree on this issue BEFORE you sign a lease or purchase a new residence in that district, or else you may be stuck in a location that is not preferable for the kids. Here is a site to research Cary, NC schools.
- Private Landlords vs. Apartment Complexes? In general, a private landlord will be more flexible on issues like the amount of the security deposit and the rent payments. Large corporate apartment complexes, however, will NOT negotiate on these issues. So if your credit is spotty and you need a landlord that is flexible, then consider a private landlord rather than a corporate one.
- Talk to a Lawyer! Making the decision to separate from your spouse will have severe practical and legal considerations and we highly recommend that you talk to a lawyer BEFORE you make this decision. Even if you think that you have thought through all the possible implications of this decision, you probably haven’t. And if you aren’t quite ready to call a lawyer, that’s ok – we wrote the book on what to do when you are considering a divorce that you can download for free here.
Control Your Online Presence
Like it or not, social media is not going away anytime soon. As a result, you need to control what you do online and how you do it. This goes for your personal social media profiles as well as accounts that may be controlled by others (who include pictures of you). We recommend that you “go dark” on social media, delete your accounts (or check to make sure your privacy settings are at the highest level) and stop posting any material about you, your soon to be ex-spouse or your kids on social media.
Many people will go online looking to connect with others while they are in the process of separating. This is a bad idea for a million and one reasons. Even if you think things are deleted, in this world of forensic computer analysts, nothing is ever really deleted.
So while you are online shutting down your social media accounts for the next several months, make sure you take some time to change up your passwords. We highly recommend a tool called Lastpass to create super long and complicated passwords for all of your accounts. Here is a quick list of all the accounts you will need to secure:
- Email accounts. Not only should you change the password on your email, but you should consider signing up for a new email account that your spouse doesn’t know about. Use this account to correspond with your lawyer about your case.
- Apple ID. In addition to changing the password on your Apple/Droid/Chrome devices, make sure to turn off the “find my friends” setting so that your spouse won’t know where you are all the time.
- Your Phone. If you have a PIN for your phone, you will want to change it so that your spouse can’t unlock your phone without you knowing.
- Amazon Account. If you share a family account that is connected to your credit card, it would be smart to change the password on this account to protect you from unwanted purchases.
- Financial Accounts. You need to change the password for all bank, investment, retirement, life insurance, etc. accounts.
- Social Media Profiles. This includes Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.
- Financial Software. Unless you are still using these accounts for family use, you will want to change the passwords to Mint, Personal Capital, and Ynab if you use them.
- Entertainment Apps such as Hulu, Netflix, or YouTube Red. Some families will share these accounts even after they separate, so this is something you may want to talk to your spouse about first.
- There are probably many other accounts that are unique to you which I haven’t included here. We recommend that you go through your online history and/or credit card statements to look for other accounts that you may have missed.
Educate Yourself about Divorce in North Carolina
Reading this website is a great first step. Downloading our book, “Next Steps” is another smart choice. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of resources you can use to help you through this process.
Here are some other books that you may find helpful to you.
Talk to a Divorce Lawyer
It is never too early to start a conversation with a lawyer. The sooner you begin this process, the more options you will have available to you. We offer a no-obligation initial assessment in our office to speak with a lawyer and begin to learn more our proven divorce process and about the options that are available to you.
Feel free to use this link to schedule your assessment today, or call our office at (919) 883-4861.