So you have just separated from your spouse. Now what?

by Angus Bickerton, Family Lawyer and Mediator

You have, for a few or for several reasons, realized that you can longer stay together with your spouse and that you need to take steps to start dealing with the issues arising from that realization. But you don’t have a clue on how to do that. Everything is upside down, your feelings are confused, and you don’t know where you stand with regard to anything. You want to make the right decisions for yourself and your children, but it’s not always easy to see what is right. How do you handle all of this?

  1. Get and stay emotionally healthy. Call and make an appointment with a counsellor to help you deal with the emotional fallout of the end of your relationship. Going through a separation/divorce is painful, no matter what the circumstances surrounding the end of the relationship were. We aren’t born knowing how to handle big, heavy emotions that can go on for months or even years. Getting counselling about how to handle those feelings is just the same as going to your physician to get treated for a disease or injury. If you don’t know how to handle something that needs to be handled, you find someone to help you with it. Counselling is that help when it comes to the emotional difficulty of separation and divorce. Also, counselling is an invaluable investment in helping you deal with the financial and legal issues later.
  2. Get and stay physically healthy. No, you don’t have to join a gym, but get a little more active to help relieve stress (see point no. 1 above), eat good healthy food, drink lots of water, and try to get a good night’s sleep every night. We all know how hard a normal day can be without a good night’s sleep. It’s much worse when you have the emotional distress of separation. If sleeplessness becomes chronic, see your doctor, and see point no. 1 above.
  3. Avoid behaviours that will complicate your situation, and deepen the dispute between you and your spouse. This includes excessive drinking, drug use, a party lifestyle, gambling, social media posts about your spouse, seeking out a new romantic relationship, taking expensive vacations, you name it. The fact is that the dispute with your spouse is already difficult enough without adding another factor.  Deal with your separation first, and see point no. 1 above.
  4. Look at your finances and make a budget. This is vital, because the expenses in the family have just been duplicated: two mortgage/rent payments, two sets of utilities, increased vehicle usage, two food budgets, two sets of furniture, etc., but the income has not changed. You need to make some fast and hard decisions about what your personal expenditures are, and trim any discretionary expenses. Make up a budget, and stick to it, and set aside money each month to help you pay for your legal fees.
  5. Organize your paperwork. Yes, this is boring, but you have to do it for your taxes anyway, and it will make your lawyer more efficient. You need:
    1. Three recent and consecutive paystubs from your employer;
    2. Your last three years of your T1 General tax returns and Notices of Assessment (the NOA is the document that the Canada Revenue Service sends you after you file your taxes).
    3. If you own a small business, corporate tax returns for the last three years
    4. Statements for all bank accounts, pensions, RRSPs, TFSAs, RESPs, RDSPs, RRIFs, GICs or any other kind of investment account.
    5. Statements for all debts, such as mortgage statements, credit card statements, lines of credit, car loans or other loans.
    6. Obtain values for the assets in your possession, such as your vehicle, collections, jewelry, tools, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, etc.
    7. Gather information about any assets or debts you owned at the date the marriage began, or any gifts, inheritances or personal injury awards you received during the marriage.
  6. Do not do this without a lawyer! Yes, it is possible to settle this problem without lawyers, but you likely don’t understand what your rights are or what your obligations are. Trying to do this without a lawyer is similar to trying to take out your own appendix: you don’t have the training or the knowledge, you’ve never done it before, you don’t have a good perspective to see everything, and it hurts like hell. You need to meet with a lawyer, at least once, so that you can understand the basics of what you are facing. Then, and only then, make a decision about retaining a lawyer.
  7. Hire a good family lawyer. The lawyer you hire must be professional and capable, who you will trust with your most intimate information, so it is a very personal relationship. Your lawyer must provide you with accurate legal advice about your situation, and sometimes that is advice which you may not want to hear. Finally, a good family lawyer must be able to both seek justice and pursue peace for you, or you should not hire them.
  8. Follow your lawyer’s advice. The lawyer’s most important duty is to the Administration of Justice, and that means that the lawyer is obligated to do not as you want them to, but to do as their professional training and experience tells them to do in the context of your situation. You gave your lawyer the objective of settling the dispute with your spouse, but it is the lawyer decides how that objective should be achieved.
  9. Keep referring back to point numbers 1 and 2 above. Getting and keeping yourself emotionally and physically healthy means that you have the best ability to manage the stressors in your situation and your responses to difficult problems.

Separating from your spouse will rarely if ever, be easy. It will take an effort of will and discipline on your part to stay on the right track, regardless of what your spouse does, and yes, it will cost money. Your lawyer will assist you on how to end the dispute fairly, quickly, and in a manner, that deals with what matters to you most: your family.

Angus Bickerton has more than twenty years’ experience as a lawyer and mediator, practicing Family Law, Mediation, Real Estate, Will and Estate Planning, and Estates Administration. If you have any questions, please contact me at this private secure contact form, or via any of the following:

Angus Bickerton