Uncoupling Before Filing.  The Better Way to Divorce. 

The woman was clearly upset, crying to me over the phone that she wanted a divorce.  Her husband was a terrible drunk and was getting more and more violent.  This was their second marriage, and she was ready to give up and move out.

The home was their primary asset, and she said couldn’t afford to abandon it.    It seemed to me that she assumed leaving the home forfeited her rights.  That is when I realized she thought she needed to be divorced or legally separated before she could leave the home.  She thought if she left the home before the divorce was final, she would lose her half of the equity in the home.

I explained to her that she is free to leave the home.  She is free to “uncouple” without divorce papers.   Moving out does not forfeit her property rights.   If she left, she is still entitled to half of all the assets (and debts) that were acquired during the marriage.  This is a community property state.  Leaving your spouse, or leaving the marital home, does not affect your right to community property.

I went on to explain that in many situations leaving without filing for divorce is better.   I refer to this as “uncoupling.”    A divorce decree is a legal document that finalizes a divorce.  This document details what assets and debts each spouse takes with them from the divorce.    Uncoupling does the same thing as a divorce decree but in a more natural way.

When spouses uncouple, they move out, they separate bank accounts, they decide which vehicle each takes with them, they reach agreements on who is paying what bills, they decide which days each might have custody of the children.   They are naturally reaching agreements.  They are uncoupling.  Uncoupling leads to many couples filing a uncontested divorce.  This is a the quickest and most economical way to receive a legal divorce.

The advantage of uncoupling, compared to filing for a divorce immediately, is that many of the disputes your attorney would handle at $350 an hour are settled without an attorney.

Uncoupling is not what attorneys typically handle.  Nor something your typical attorney is good at.   Divorce attorneys like laws and courts.  We like contracts and judges to make orders.   So, I turned to a good friend of mine, Nancy Gabriel.  Nancy is a mediator with www.mediationaroundthetable.com.   Nancy has a background and training more suited for helping couples with life decisions like a divorce.   Nancy believes it is crucial to plan an exit strategy.   Here are Nancy’s words on uncoupling.

Blindsiding your partner doesn’t exactly lend itself to a peaceful, respectful divorce.  There are a lot of overwhelming details accompanying this decision which are better, in the long run, if they’re made together.  So before one of you leaves, it’s imperative that you have an exit strategy.

The first step in any exit strategy is to consider your options as well as your desired outcome.   Will you be the one moving out?  Have you determined when this is going to happen?  Do you have a place to stay?  What about your stuff?  Are you able to move on without a rear-view mirror, or are you going to be co-parenting with this person for the next umpteen years?

The second step in your exit strategy is to evaluate your finances.  Can you afford to move out?  Do you have the ability to pay for your own living expenses?  If you have children, how are you going to determine who pays for what?  And what about your credit card bills?  Your joint bank accounts?  Your student loans?    When a marriage is ending, the financial exit strategy can become more complicated and more stressful even after you’ve made the difficult decision to call it quits.

The third step in your exit strategy is to figure out how and what to tell your children.   It is of the utmost importance that you do this together, and possibly over several different conversations.  Your children will have varying reactions, depending upon their ages, frames of references, and circumstances.  Reactions might include disbelief, anger, or maybe even relief.  And, they might have no reaction at all, at least not immediately.  Kids are people, and we all process information at different speeds.  Keeping that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to make a mental note to check in with them the next day to understand more about what they’re thinking and feeling.  They know more than you think, and no matter what, your divorce is not their fault.

The fourth step in your exit strategy is to communicate your intentions to those who need to know. This list may include your parents, siblings, employers, colleagues, co-workers, day-care workers, friends, teachers, and even your accountant.  Regardless of who you’re telling, the words you choose are of the utmost significance.  Try to make your statement positive, concise and respectful. 

Your exit strategy will also include some or all of the following: 

(a)  What’s your time frame?  Who’s going to move out, and when?  If privacy is an issue, will you need to ask for the key back?  Change the locks? 

(b)  How are you going to communicate with each other?  Phone, text, email?

(c)  What about counseling or therapy?  Start together?  Continue together?  Start or continue individually?

(d)  Are you going to have sex with each other?  What about dating other people?  Introducing someone new to the kids?

(e)  What is a reasonable amount of time to elapse before you both re-evaluate the separation?  And if you decide to formally end the relationship, what will that look like?  Will you first see a Mediator before incurring attorney’s fees?

This list, although lengthy, is not all-inclusive.  If it seems overwhelming to you, break it down.  Have a few meetings with your spouse to hammer out these preliminary decisions.  Depending upon your individual situation, there may be more or less ground rules to discuss and establish before separating. 

Regardless of how short or long your list is, I urge you to write it out, together.  And make sure the following two items are at the top of the list; Be respectful of each other and be on the same page when it comes to telling your family and your friends.

This is some amazing information and advice from Nancy.   She is really gifted at helping people prepare for the uncoupling that comes with a divorce.    If the divorce is inevitable, we prefer couples to heed Nancy’s advice.  Uncouple as much as you can peacefully and respectfully.   Only bring in the divorce attorney when your spouse does not agree or to finalize the legal documents.