Before the divorce process begins, your attorney will need information about your marriage and the official documentation attached to it. These will include income tax returns and proof of income related to marital debt, assets, property valuations, etc. Attorneys want documents because dry ink doesn't lie. Your spouse might make claims to a mediator or in divorce court, but documents can prove whether they are being truthful. So, you need to provide any documents that tell the story of what has happened in your marriage financially and in any other way.
It’s important that you provide a complete and very organized file with all documents to your attorney, which will help the negotiation stage of the divorce. "Divorce is one of the greatest upheavals you will ever experience in your life," says former divorce lawyer Brette Sember. "Because the process is so overwhelming, anything you can do to stay organized with paperwork, financial matters, and legal documentation will help you move more smoothly through the process. It will also help you feel in control and potentially save you money on legal fees since you are able to provide exactly what your attorney needs." Plus, if you go to court, the more organized and complete your document file is, the more supporting evidence you will have for your case.
Meet the Expert
Brette Sember, JD, is a former divorce and family lawyer and mediator. She is the author of The Complete Divorce Organizer & Planner and The Complete Divorce Guide.
When you are readying your documents, you can provide paper or digital copies to your attorney, though Sember advises that digital files may be more useful. Be sure to keep copies for yourself, too. A best practice is organizing the documents into seven specific categories.
Documents Related to Income
"These are key to the process because the court needs to understand your financial positions and employment status to be able to consider child support, alimony, and property division," explains Sember. These documents generally include income tax returns and pay stubs. If you have a side hustle that brings in additional income (even through commission or tips), you'll need to have these documented as well.
- Your paycheck stubs from all sources of employment over the last year. If you are self-employed, provide income tax returns and any tax forms or business forms related to self-reported income. This should include documentation from any business you or your spouse held an interest in over the past three years.
- Your spouse's paycheck stubs for the same period of time. Those check stubs will often show year-to-date earnings and deductions.
- Documentation regarding business expenses if either you or your spouse is self-employed. These may include check registers, bank statements, canceled checks, payment receipts, financial statements, and profit and loss statements.
- At a minimum, copies of your joint or individual tax returns, both state and federal, for the past three to five years.
- If you or your spouse work for cash, copies of check ledgers that will show any expenses paid during the marriage.
- A copy of any financial statements or statements of net worth prepared by you or your spouse for the purpose of securing bank loans or for any other purpose.
- Any other information that will establish your net worth, your spouse's net worth, your joint net worth, your income, and your spouse's income.
Sember advises creating a monthly budget for yourself to document your current/anticipated living expenses. This should include the needs and expenses of any children you have.
Documents Related to Real Estate
Real estate is a major asset that will need to be taken into consideration. "Any real estate purchased during the marriage is marital property and will be divided in the divorce," says Sember. "Real estate owned separately (bought before marriage) could also come into play if marital funds were used to pay the mortgage or do upkeep or repairs on the property." Sember explains that "community property states 'award half of marital property to each spouse' whereas equitable distribution states 'divide property in a way that is fair but not necessarily equal.'"
- Any documents showing the legal description of any real estate owned together or separately. These can be obtained from your mortgage company or bank.
- Your current mortgage statements on any mortgages you have on real estate property.
- All documents pertaining to the initial purchase of the real estate.
- If the real estate has been refinanced, all documents pertaining to the refinance.
- Tax assessor’s statement(s) pertaining to any and all real estate.
Label everything and include a list outlining anything you are documenting and why it matters.
Documents Related to Joint Financial Accounts
Similar to income statements, the court needs documentation of all financial accounts, both separate and joint. "Both parties have to completely disclose their assets," asserts Sember. "Any account opened or contributed to during the marriage is potentially marital property and must be assessed."
- Savings passbooks and savings certificates of individual or joint accounts held individually or jointly by you and your spouse.
- Any and all bank statements for the past three years from any account in your name or held jointly with your spouse.
- Statements from investment accounts you two hold jointly and separately.
Documents Related to Life Insurance
Life insurance can also be considered a marital property. In some cases, it can be viewed as a form of spousal support. "Life insurance cash value could be divided in the divorce or the court can order a beneficiary change, such as to provide backup for child support," says Sember.
- Statements regarding life insurance policies on your life, your spouse’s life, or on your children, whether it is an individual policy or a policy through your employer. This includes any documents indicating a cash balance or loans against the policies.
Documents Related to Marital Debts
Similar to the presentation of financial assets, any accumulation of debt will also need to be documented. "All debts entered into during the marriage must be disclosed as part of financial disclosure," explains Sember. "The court will determine which are marital debts and divide them as part of the divorce."
- An itemized list of any outstanding, unsecured debts including credit cards, medical bills, and any other loans in your name or your spouse's name.
Documents Related to Pension Funds
"All retirement assets must be disclosed and the court will determine how they are divided as part of the property settlement," says Sember. Contributions made toward retirement assets during the marriage are considered marital property. Any subsequent benefits or interest could be considered a spousal benefit.
- A copy of recent statements for pension funds, retirement funds, 401(k) plans, mutual funds, or IRAs.
Documents Related to Automobiles Owned
Vehicles are also a marital asset subject to court-appraised division. "All vehicles owned by the parties must be disclosed and the court will determine ownership," says Sember.
- Title or registration to all vehicles owned by you or your spouse individually or jointly, including but not limited to automobiles, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, farm equipment, or other vehicles.
- Any documents demonstrating the current outstanding secured debt on the vehicles, including payment coupons, amortization schedules, or monthly invoices.
Sember adds that other items to consider documenting are collectibles, jewelry, intellectual property, co-ownership of businesses, children's assets (such as educational savings accounts and bank accounts), household furnishings, social media accounts and other digital assets, memberships, and loyalty points/frequent flyer miles.