Your husband or wife wants a divorce. Well. That sucks. You have our sympathy.
For purposes of this discussion, though, we're going to ignore the rest of the terrible soul-searching and sentimentality called for by this moment, and cut to the important bit for our purposes: steps to take to avoid legal and financial catastrophe. We care about money. (A note here: we're not lawyers.) There's a fair chance that money problems caused part of your situation to begin with, and short of a medical calamity or a jail sentence, nothing is more consistently damaging to one's finances than a divorce.
1. Read the dang papers.
I know it seems obvious, but the instinctive reaction for many people is to file these documents in a drawer and forget it happened while trying to work something out. You may be assuming that there's time, or that you and your spouse have already come to terms and that the paperwork is a formality.
Big, big mistake.
In most jurisdictions, you'll have 15 to 30 days to answer the legal summons, but there may be court motions made requiring a much faster response, particularly if you have kids or your spouse is trying to secure joint property. If you choose not to answer the summons, you may be held in default and your right to negotiate the terms of your divorce become much more constrained.
The papers may contain emergency orders freezing your bank accounts, or granting temporary custody of your children to your spouse. You might also want to know why you're getting divorced, for legal purposes. You may have been assuming something like irreconcilable differences, only to discover a charge of adultery, alcoholism or abuse in the papers.
Don't sell your stuff, close bank accounts and blow town.
The first stage of a divorce filing freezes major movement in your assets until everyone agrees on what those assets are, so they can be split up fairly (or if not fairly, at least in accordance with the law.) The papers also generally prevent one parent from spiriting their children off to another state or another country. A court will view these behaviors dimly, and is likely to punish you either in terms of custody, child support or spousal support as a result.
You probably need a lawyer.
If you're a mostly-broke 20-something, without kids or joint property, leaving a marriage by mutual agreement, without acrimony and on mutual terms, where neither of you were financially supporting the other, you might be able to get through this without a lawyer. Don't count on it. If you've received a summons and complaint for divorce, and you haven't already worked out the terms in front of a neutral arbiter or mediator, you need legal help. Find a divorce lawyer.
Even if you're parting on “good terms,” if you have children, you absolutely require your own legal help, right now.
Again, you may think you have something worked out with your spouse around the distribution of joint property, bank accounts, the house, the cars, alimony, the health insurance and the dog. But if you have children, you absolutely, positively must have legal counsel, no matter what you might have agreed, even if you have a prenuptial agreement. The court may or may not respect your opinions about managing your children – they (probably) care more about your children welfare than they care about yours, and prenuptial agreements regarding children are not legally enforceable.
If you have children, start pulling paperwork.
You're going to need records in court – school attendance records, grades, birth certificates, social security numbers and the like. You'll also want to be able to show your involvement in your childrens’ lives if there's anything like a custody dispute. That means family pictures, evidence from family outings, parent-teacher conferences, extra-curricular activities, Facebook postings (!), phone records and e-mail.
Alexa Von Tobel, Founder and CEO of LearnVest.com, guides us through the process of getting through a divorce without wrecking our finances.