The title of my book on New Jersey Divorce law---and a frequent tagline of our firm is "Happily EVEN After." (by the way, fill out the form below to receive a free digital copy of my book). The idea we're attempting to express is that there is a light at the end of the divorce tunnel. If you do the right thing, keep your mind focused day-by-day on the tasks at hand, and choose wise and experienced counsel, then your life post-divorce may prove to be some of the happiest times of your life. It's a motto, a mantra our clients can borrow, and for our firm a way of life.
But it's also not very informative as to what specific tasks you have one the divorce is complete. The purpose of this blog post is to move away from the 10,000 feet up view of Happily EVEN After to discuss the mechanics of what to do after a divorce is complete.
Step 1: Turn to Your Marital Settlement Agreement (or Court Order if the Case was Tried to Completion). I often compare the Marital Settlement Agreement to a "rule book" in a board game. Whenever there is a disagreement over the rules to a board game (and as a tabletop gamer who often plays with other lawyers I am more than familiar with that issue) the first thing people do is go to the rules. In a board game the rule book provides answers to basic questions and steps to take to avoid conflict. Likewise, a well-drafted Marital Settlement Agreement will provide the "rules" to your divorce. If you're curious about who gets your child this Memorial Day, turn to the Marital Settlement Agreement. Upset your spouse hasn't refinanced the house in their own name yet.....turn to the rule book. Questioning what to do to divide your pensions----you get the idea. The reason why the Marital Settlement Agreements are so long and detailed is an attempt to explain what to do in almost every conceivable post-divorce situation. When people or lawyers say they are negotiating a divorce what they really mean is that they are negotiating a marital settlement agreement. Once your divorce is finalized keep a copy handy and unlike a car manual, actually use it when you have a question about how to proceed.
Step 2: Change Your Will. One of the first things I recommend at the close of a case is that my clients (unless for some reason they cannot under the terms of the agreement) hire an estates and trusts lawyer to draw up a new will for the client. Usually your current last will and testament will list your (now-ex) spouse as a beneficiary and although they would likely not recover anyway under the law, changing the will (and any other financial instruments you are allowed to modify) once a divorce is completed is helpful.
Step 3: Keep Your Important Documents in a Safe Place. Do your best to maintain your final divorce decree (the one with the gold seal) in a safe place along with an official copy of your executed Marital Settlement Agreement, your case information statement, and any other important forms from your divorce. Should there ever be the need to go to court in the future on these types of issues you will need at least these documents to proceed.
Step 4: Appeal. This is optional, but I thought I would be remiss to not state that if your case went to trial and you are not satisfied with all or a portion of the decision you do have 45 days to appeal. Such appeals are rare but it's worth noting they exist for that 1% or so of new jersey divorce cases that proceed all the way to trial.
Step 5: Try to Work Together With Your Ex - Especially if You Have Children. Let's face it, you may or may not be happy with your ex, but fighting with someone you used to have an important relationship with doesn't seem like a particularly enjoyable use of time. It's certainly not the Happily EVEN After that our firm is seeking for our clients. Just because you are divorced does not (for better or worse) mean that you won't continue to have some type of relationship with your ex. You may need to co-parent---for years. And years. Seriously---for what might seem like centuries. The more you can work together, especially in your children's best interests, the better off you (and your children) will be post-divorce.
There are plenty of other odds and ends to consider after your divorce is finalized, but the above is a good start. You may need to finalize changing your name with government entities, you may need to work out a new transportation schedule, there will be bills to pay and issues large and small waiting for you. But at least you will have gotten past the sometimes difficult journey of the divorce process. One final piece of advice: take a few minutes to enjoy your new status, the freedoms laid out in front of you, and meditate for just a second on what Happily EVEN After means to you.