Ask a Divorce Lawyer
Divorce lawyer Dana Stutman wants to answer your pressing questions, gratis. Herewith, her top ten list of things you should do before filing for divorce.
I first met divorce lawyer Dana Stutman back when she was Dana Sherins and still had baby teeth. We took ballet classes together in Potomac, Maryland. Joined the cheerleading squads in our giant public junior high and high schools. (Don’t judge. Go, Bulldogs.) Performed “All for the Best” from Godspell at our school talent show, with our friend Nicole Nehama on piano. Had intersecting social circles. Liked and respected one another. A lot.
Then, like all Gen-X kids, we lost touch. A Filofax could only take so many address changes before you ripped out the page, cranked out some kids, and moved on.
A few years ago, Dana suddenly appeared in my Instagram feed. Her high school friend group—way cooler than mine and more cohesive—had spent a girls’ weekend in New York, and they’d taken a group selfie. I clicked on her name and followed her. She followed back.
Ladyparts is a reader-supported publication. However, if you are a struggling single parent or woman experiencing ageism (been there), and you are unable to afford the $5 monthly subscription, I’ve got you! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll comp you.
Then Covid hit, and my ex-husband and I could not figure out how to manage joint custody. Because I represented myself in our divorce, I had no lawyer with whom to consult. Just the vague agreement I’d drafted myself, with no caveat for deadly pandemics. I called Dana, whom I’d heard had become a divorce lawyer, to ask for her advice. Then I wrote up what I learned for The Atlantic. Dana’s advice was not only useful to me, I received dozens of letters from readers as well, grateful for her thoughtful solutions.
Recently, Dana and I were finally able to get together, nearly four decades after our last hug. She’s battling breast cancer, and I wanted to see her in person, not over Zoom. We easily picked up right where we left off.
To counterbalance the misery of chemotherapy, she thought it might be fun both to be of service to others and to stretch her writing muscles. (She’s always been a good writer.) So we came up with a plan. Because this newsletter is a natural audience for those she might help, I offered my platform as way for Dana to be of use while feeling useless.
All for the best, indeed.
Dana Stutman will be answering your questions about divorce…for free. Yes, for free. And I will make these posts free for now as well. People! Do you know how much matrimonial lawyers usually charge by the hour for their advice? Take her up on this! She and her husband, who is her law partner, have been written up in the New York Times. So it’s not just me saying she’s good at her job. All you have to do is send an email to this address: email@example.com. Sooner or later, Dana should get to your question, unless we get inundated, in which case she will choose a typical question representative of the kinds of questions that appear most often. (Should you forget this email address, I’ll make sure to include it on future posts.)
We will keep your name private, so just sign your letter like any letter to an advice columnist, such as “Knuckling through with a Narcissist” or “Struggling to Stay Solvent” or “Cheated out of Child Support” or whatever other alliterative or non-alliterative names you come up with. And yes, questions about prenuptial agreements are fair game as well. Anything and everything to do with the laws of relationships and marriage, whether you’re just starting one, considering ending one, navigating infidelity (sexual, financial, or otherwise), fleeing abuse, discovering lies, in the throes of divorce, managing a post-divorce co-parenting situation, or even dealing with the break-up of a domestic partnership, which has its own legal pitfalls.
My own four-year, post-divorce cohabitation, for example, ended a few months after we signed a new lease. Is the partner who moves out still liable for their share of the rent until the end of the lease? In our case, yes. Does that mean they have the legal right to spend the night at the shared home on occasion? This was a question that recently arose, and these are the kinds of questions you should feel free to ask Dana as well.
In the meantime, for this first edition of “Ask a Divorce Lawyer,” I came up with the first question, asking Dana to please give me a list of the top ten things she tells her clients to do the minute they decide, “I do not.” Suffice it to say, I could have used this list before starting my own DIY divorce. Maybe you can, too. So, without further ado:
DANA STUTMAN’S TOP 10 THINGS TO DO BEFORE FILING FOR DIVORCE:
1) Get a new email account with a new password, both of which should be unknown to your spouse. Why? “You’d be surprised how much hacking goes on in a divorce,” she said. “Your spouse, who may not have any malicious intent, may already know your password, unbeknownst to you, or they may have figured it out. This happens a lot. You don’t want them to know you’ve been corresponding with a divorce lawyer until you’re ready to tell them.”
2) Find a good advisor or lawyer. Ask friends who’ve been through a divorce to recommend someone or research online reviews.
3) Find a good therapist. (You will need one. Please trust me on this one.)
4) Gather your tax returns for the past three years or more.
5) Have a good understanding of your month-to-month historical spending, on average, or year-to-year. Have your bank send, at a minimum, copies of your past 3-5 years of bank statements.
6) Think about getting a new separate bank account, at a specific point in time to be determined between you and your lawyer. (“You can’t just drain the marital account,” said Dana. “This is a bad idea.”)
7) Gain a firm understanding of the assets in your name, in your spouse’s name, and in joint names with each other or others.
8) Have a firm understanding as well of the debts (liabilities) in your name, in your spouse’s name, and in joint names with each other or others.
9) Get a safe deposit box. “You don’t want to hide things,” said Dana, “but you may want to guard them. For example, some people have gold coins that are valuable. Or jewelry.”
10) Make a list of your future goals, including where you would like to live in the next year and in the next 5-10 years as well. Figure out whether you need to find a job, if you’ve jettisoned your career to be the primary caregiver to your children, and what that new career might be, as well as any additional education that might be necessary to achieve this. Also list what you would be willing to sacrifice, if necessary, to achieve these goals.
Once again, here’s that email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Yes, we know it’s really long, but, to our surprise, the simpler “askadivorcelawyer” before the @gmail part was already taken. Dana and I await your questions.