Divorced or just think you are divorced?

By Tonya Graser Smith

Are you divorced? Or do you just think you’re divorced?

You’d think it would be easy to make sure the proverbial i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. But in the emotional rollercoaster that is divorce, folks sometimes overlook important last steps.

A few times a year a new client will come to me needing something — a prenuptial agreement, for example — ahead of a second marriage. I’ll ask for the divorce decree. I might get a copy of the settlement agreement, which doesn’t constitute a divorce. Or I might get a blank stare or a request to check court records.

In one case, a man who said he’d been divorced a year earlier came to me for help filling out an application for a marriage license. His wedding was in a month, and I couldn’t find any documentation that he was divorced. He and his first wife had completed the one year of legal separation that North Carolina requires. They’d divided property and distributed assets in an agreed upon fashion. But they hadn’t filed for and been granted the divorce.

My client panicked. “How quickly can you get me divorced?” Fortunately, we were able to expedite matters, in large part due to cooperation from his ex. Usually it takes two to three months to process a divorce.

Here are some tips to make sure this doesn’t happen to you — or so that you can double check and rest easy that you have tied up this chapter in your life and can move on.

  1. Know the terminology.

Separation and absolute divorce are not the same. Some states, like North Carolina, require couples to be legally separated for a certain amount of time. During this time, couples can work out child custody, child support, alimony and sale and division of property, but they cannot ask the court to grant a divorce. Additionally, some states require couples have agreements on all child and property issues before divorce; others do not.

  1. Don’t wait for your lawyer to follow up with you.

After the separation time is up, you still need to file for divorce. And you might have to be the one to file even if you weren’t the one who left or wanted to end the marriage. Don’t wait for your lawyer to reach out to you when it’s time to draw up those final papers. You will have to drive this process. Lawyers often don’t keep up with when all of their clients are nearing the end of their mandated separations. It’s a complicated, emotional process, but you need to stay on top of it in the home stretch.

  1. Don’t put it off longer than necessary.

It’s much harder to get that absolute divorce if you don’t know how to find your former spouse. Not as much an issue for those who share kids. So if you don’t have kids to keep you in contact, you especially need to stay on the process from beginning to end.

  1. Don’t try to do it yourself.

Sometimes people try to do the last stage themselves. They’re tired — of their past marriage, of the legal fees — and they scrimp on the very last stage. Don’t do this. I did my plumbing once myself and still ended up calling a plumber.

Bottom line: Divorce is complicated; you need a specialist.