First you'll interview several lawyers and select one that feels right to you. Let's assume you've found a good divorce lawyer and are ready to begin the process. Your lawyer will probably send you a form to complete on the history of your family and your marriage. You'll fill out the form and mail it to him so he can review it before your next meeting. Some lawyers prefer to meet with you in person first so they can get a sense of your case.
Your Marriage History
When you get together, you and your lawyer will first review and sign a retainer agreement. Then you'll review the marital history together. Your lawyer will help you understand what parts of your marriage history are important to the divorce process and what parts are not legally important. For example, it's important that you inherited some property from your aunt during the marriage. It's probably not important that your spouse seemed to prefer reading a book in the evening to talking to you. Your lawyer will also want to know what aspects of your divorce are most important to you so he can begin to think about settlement options.
After that first meeting with your lawyer, it's a good idea to rethink your objectives. Objectives need to be reasonable, obtainable, and based on reality. Revenge should not be an objective. It's a visceral response that may produce short-term results but long-term harm.
Listen to Advice, But Stay in Control
You will tell your lawyer what you hope to accomplish in your divorce, and he, being a good divorce lawyer, will tell you what parts of your plan are reasonable and what parts are not. For example, if you tell your lawyer you want custody of your children, but you work sixty hours a week and your spouse stays home with the children, he will tell you that unless something is seriously wrong with your spouse, you're unlikely to get custody. You need to listen to this advice. Many people spend a lot of money pursuing goals they can't obtain, usually because they're too wrapped up emotionally in the issue to see the reality of the situation.
Your lawyer may say you're entitled to more than you want. Think hard about this advice. Be sure you're the one who decides what you want. Sometimes pushing for more is what turns a divorce from friendly to hostile.
You and your lawyer will make a list of the documents you need to develop an understanding of your financial situation. You will possess some of the documents, which you can provide easily, and your spouse will have some of the documents, which may or may not be easily obtained. Other papers are held by the bank or other institutions. You and your lawyer will develop a plan for getting all the documents, but remember that anything you can do to help collect the required documents will save your lawyer time — and save you money. If you think your spouse may take or destroy important documents when she learns of your plans to divorce, you may want to make copies and put them in a safe place.
If your lawyer says you need to round up certain financial information before you begin the divorce, get the documents right away. When you respond quickly to your lawyer's requests, you help move the process along. Your lawyer can prepare better, clearer papers if he has the necessary information.
Here's a list of basic financial information needed for a family with modest assets, including a house and retirement accounts:
Recent paycheck stubs, at least for the past four weeks, but the more the better.
Recent bank statements showing checking and savings account balances and activities, whether individual, joint, or for the parties' children.
Recent mortgage statement on all property owned by the parties, whether individual or joint, showing amount owed and interest rate.
Recent credit card statements, whether individual or joint, showing balance information.
Recent retirement account statements showing contributions and present values.
Recent statements on all financial investment accounts including IRAs, stocks, bonds, or other similar accounts, including present balance and interest rate.
Recent statements or appraisals of any other property or investment, whether individual or joint, such as art, jewelry, coins, boats, or other similar items.
Time share agreements, whether individual or joint.
Lease agreements, whether individual or joint.
Current real estate tax bills.
Documents from recent home transactions (refinancing or appraisal).
Providing your lawyer with a copy of these documents will help him evaluate your case and give you a more realistic idea of what you can expect in a settlement or an order after trial.