Divorce, property and debts

In order to get a divorce, you will need to list what you have, what you owe and how those things should be divided between you and your spouse. Some of these decisions can be made later on in the divorce process. But requesting "temporary orders" to divide up your property and debts can make sure you have what you need to live in the short term.

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One of the challenges in getting a divorce is how to divide up the things that you have acquired together. This includes not only physical belongings, but financial assets, property and debts. 

When you file for divorce or dissolution, you will need to do two things:

  • List, or “define”, all your property and debts. This information will be entered into the financial paperwork that you need to fill out as part of the divorce papers.
  • Decide what you have to divide right away. It can take 4 to 12 months or more to finalize your divorce. What will each of you need to get you through that time frame? You request what you need through “temporary orders.”

The permanent, long-term division of property will be handled by the divorce settlement itself. You can decide how to divide these up while the divorce is being worked on. 

Thinking through your property

List what you and your spouse own or rent. Think through: 

  • Your house or apartment
  • Bank accounts
  • Furniture
  • Cars and other vehicles
  • Life insurance 
  • Business interests, stocks or bonds 
  • Pension or retirement account s
  • Anything else you own 

For any of these things that you own, you will need to determine what’s called the “Fair Market Value.” This is the how much you could sell it for now, at a yard sale or online. For house or land values, you could check with a realtor, or with your county auditor. 

Thinking through your debts and monthly payments

Debt is money that you need to pay for something you already bought. For instance, this might be payments on your credit card, car payments or loans for things like a TV. 

What debts do you and your spouse have? One kind of debt is a "secured loan." A secured loan is backed up by something of value, or “collateral,” that you own. Usually it’s a piece of property or a car. If you stop making payments, the creditor can use it to help pay off the loan. Consider:

  • Short term loans secured by your car 
  • A second mortgage or home equity line 
  • Rent-to-own furniture
  • A loan where you used your first car as collateral for buying a second vehicle

What about unsecured loans? A loan is “unsecured” because if you stop making payments, the creditor can’t easily take any of your property. They would have to take you to court first. These can include:

  • Credit card debt
  • Cash advances
  • Medical bills
  • School loans

Also consider the things you're committed to paying, such as your cell phone plan or your rent.

What is yours and what is “marital?”

The things that you and your spouse own together, or that either of you bought during the marriage, are assumed to be “marital property”–or shared property of the marriage itself. This is true even if you had separate accounts or if one of you made more money than the other. This is also true of debts—if whatever brought on a debt happened while you were married, then most likely you’re both responsible for it. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the bill or credit card. 

But you might own things that are “separate property.” These are things you owned before you were married. You don’t need to split separate property with your spouse when you get divorced. The same is sometimes true of an inheritance, even if you received it during the marriage. 

One piece of property might be partly “marital” and partly "separate." For example, if your spouse put a down payment of $500 on a car right before you got married, and then has been making car payments of $100 per month since, $500 worth of the car is "separate" property. If you renovated a house together, that you owned prior to the marriage, that house would also be part "marital property" and part "separate property." In both cases, you would need to subtract out the value of the "separate" part before you divide everything else.

Who gets what in the short term?

While the divorce is working its way through the court, you need to decide what’s important for the next 4 to 12 months or more. You can file a request for temporary orders to make sure you can use anything you need during that time. Your requests should include both what you want and why it's important.  

For example:

  • Do you need to live in the home where you both lived together? Write something like, “I request exclusive use of the marital home,” in your temporary orders. Say why it's important that you have the use of the home.
  • Do you need to have the car? Write something like, “I request possession of the marital car,” in your temporary orders. Be sure to include a description of it, and to describe why you need the car. 
  • Do you need access to the credit card? This is particularly important if you have a low income on your own, and might not be able to get a new credit card by yourself. Write something like, “I request that the martial card be left open, because I am without the credit history to get a new credit card. Each party will be only responsible for paying off purchases that they used the credit card for.” 

Who pays the bills in the short term?

You also need to think through who is going to pay bills, like utilities, and outstanding debts, like car loans. Think through your list of debts and living expenses to make sure you request what you need while you wait for your divorce to be finalized. 

For example:

  • “My spouse should maintain health insurance” or “car insurance” 
  • “My spouse should renew the tags on the marital car” 
  • “My spouse should pay credit card minimum payments”
  • “My spouse should pay car payments”

Even if your name isn’t on a bill, or if you don’t have possession of the property or item, don’t assume you won’t be held responsible. For example, you may be held accountable for your spouse’s medical expenses. Or you could be sued if your spouse doesn't make the payments on a car they bought while you were married—even if your spouse has the car now and you have never driven it. 

Filing your temporary orders

Your requests for temporary orders are part of the package of paperwork that goes with your divorce. 

It can be useful to sit down with your spouse and try to agree on who will get what and pay what in the short term. You can then file a single set of requests for temporary orders. If you can’t agree, file separate requests for temporary orders and the court will decide. 

Learn more about filing for dissolution, filing for a divorce without children or filing for a divorce with children

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