Before you get divorced, it’s important to understand your finances. But if you’re a non-working spouse who doesn’t handle the bills, figuring out the overall financial picture can be intimidating.

 Even so, knowing the exact amounts of your assets and liabilities is key to an equitable split. While it can be a lot of work, understanding your household’s income and expenses is key to determining how much money you’ll need to live on after your divorce, including negotiating alimony and child support.

Here are expert tips on setting yourself up financially for divorce.

Financial preparation is crucial before divorce

It’s important to be prepared financially for the divorce process,  Stephen Cawelti, a board-certified divorce attorney in Los Angeles, said. It typically takes a few months to get a court order for financial support from the other party, he said. If you make the mistake of trying to negotiate support first, the timeline for getting a judge’s order gets pushed back even further. That’s why you’ll want to file a support motion with the court sooner rather than later, he said.

“The spouse paying support will want to delay those payments as long as possible to leverage negotiation power,” said Cawelti, who recommends having a minimum three-month reserve fund (money, family help, line of credit, etc.) to make it through this time period. As you wait for the court date to arrive, negotiate with your spouse – if you’re able to agree on a support number, the court hearing can always be canceled. On the flip side, you can never get that time back that you waited to file, he said.

Your financial document checklist for divorce

In order to pursue a reasonable division of assets, the non-earning spouse and their attorney need to have a clear picture of the family’s finances, said Susan Myres, a family lawyer and managing partner at Myres & Associates in Houston. You’ll want to make copies of all the relevant financial documents, keeping them in a safe place.

It’s a good idea to create a file folder with at least four big sections, said Chris Manske, a certified financial planner in Houston and author of “The Prepared Investor.” He recommends dividing your financial documents as follows:

  • Section 1: Include family tax returns for the last three to five years
  • Section 2: Include copies of statements for your bank accounts, loans and credit card accounts, retirement accounts, and investment accounts. “The most recent statement and the most recent end-of-year statement for each account is a wonderful start,” Manske said.
  • Section 3: Make copies of all of your insurance policies, particularly property and casualty insurance.
  • Section 4:  Include legal documents such as a will or any pre/post-nuptial agreements.

Keep in mind that you may not have all of the information you need, Cawelti said – that’s especially true if your partner oversaw the finances. But they’re legally required to disclose their finances and failing to do so in a timely manner could help boost your request for financial support, he added.

It’s also vital to protect your credit during the divorce process, Berkeley Harrison, a wealth advisor and senior portfolio manager at Sterling Financial Group in Pasadena, California, said. 

He advises running a credit report, knowing the due dates for all of your bills, and staying up to date on payments.

Should a non-working spouse get a job during a divorce?

Maybe you don’t want to enter the divorce proceedings as a helpless victim of circumstances, so you’re tempted to get a job. But in many states, this is probably not a smart strategy, Harrison said. That’s because doing so is likely to compromise your spousal support (especially if you haven’t worked in years and don’t have a college degree). 

But if you’re a highly qualified spouse who recently left the workforce – say, to care for your children – restarting your career early in the divorce proceedings might be a good idea, Harrison said. That way, you can build your self-confidence and establish a sense of independence.  

“Situations vary in every case, as do state laws, so consider consulting with an experienced divorce attorney prior to starting a job.  Even if you decide to not get a job during the divorce proceedings, at least gain some insight as to how much you might be able to earn if you needed to get a job after a divorce is finalized,” he said.

To do this, evaluate your education and work experience. Reach out to a recruiter who focuses on your area of expertise to determine the current salary for your field, or check out online resources like PayScale, LinkedIn Salary, Glassdoor or Salary Expert, Harrison said. 

Finally, you might want to consider temporary job assignments or gig work to find out how much money you can bring in, he said. “In addition to knowing your earning potential, having a number in mind is critical for financial planning and security, since it helps you control your expenses,” Harrison said.

How to created a budget for live after divorce

First, list out your monthly expenses, paying attention to what your true financial needs are, Cawelti said. Now, you’re ready to create your budget, he said, adding that there are many free budget software tools available, including EveryDollar.

After preparing your initial budget, consider consulting with a financial planner, Harrison said. They can explore areas of financial flexibility, both income and expenses.  “For example, financial planners regularly recommend that all clients establish an emergency fund, setting aside six months of living expenses (housing, basic food, and other necessities) to weather the storm of a work disruption such as a layoff,” he said. 

What’s more, unpredictable expenses like a leaky roof or car repairs happen periodically as well, so setting aside additional funds in CDs or other semi-liquid investments is smart. 

Creating, managing, and following a budget is key to thriving following a divorce; Harrison recommended taking the following steps:

  • List your current income and expenses, tallying everything up.
  • Start tracking – write down all expenses in a notebook, or use a phone app.
  • Get creative – consider freelance work or downsizing to save on housing costs.
  • Draw up the budget and keep it visible so that it’s easier to follow.
  • Continue to revise and adjust your budget, keeping it as realistic as possible.
  • Earmark a few dollars each week for savings as you build up your emergency fund.

Having a firm grasp on your financial situation is key to preparing yourself for a divorce as a non-working spouse. By gathering important financials, determining your earning potential, and creating a realistic budget, you’ll be better prepared to manage your money post-divorce. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s always a good idea to consult with a divorce attorney and financial adviser – these professionals can help you create a long-term financial strategy that works for you.