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We're splitting up - what are the first steps I need to take?

You and your spouse have had that last big fight, or that sad final conversation, and you've realized that the relationship is over. What steps do you need to take now?

1. Consider whether it's possible to save the relationship.

Is marriage counseling a possibility? It's not appropriate in situations where there is domestic violence or any other safety issue. It also requires a commitment to work on the marriage from both spouses, so it's not appropriate in a case where your spouse is clearly not interested. In other cases, though, it might be worthwhile to invest the time and money for marriage counseling if it can prevent a divorce.

2. Ensure that everyone is safe and stable.

If there is any domestic violence, make sure that you and any children are safe. You may call the police if you have been assaulted or threatened with violence.

Take any of your own important documents with you, if possible, if you are the one to leave the home. If possible, you can also take pictures or a video to show the condition of the home and its contents.

If either of you leave, it's important to get legal help right away, to deal with arrangements for any children, the home, and any financial arrangements.

3. Keeping the finances stable

Get a printout of all bank and credit card balances that you have.

If possible, get an agreement on keeping the finances stable. This means that household bills continue to be paid, and that you agree that neither of you will run up joint debt or clear out bank accounts without notice to the other.

4. Get legal advice

You need to know about your legal rights and obligations, and discuss the best options for ending the relationship with the least amount of aggrevation. You can decide if a form of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or collaborative family law, would be right for your situation, or if you are in a situation that requires you to go to court.

5. Gather financial documents

At a minimum, you will need your income tax returns and Notices of Assessment for the past 3 years, proof of your current income, and statements for every asset and debt that you have. You should also gather documentation for your expenses: utility bills, property taxes, children's expenses, etc. If you are part of a pension plan, you and your spouse will need to complete a form to have your pension administrator provide you with a family law value for it. In some cases, property, businesses or valuable objects may require a formal valuation. 6. Put some temporary arrangements into place

While all this is going on, you need to make sure that there is a schedule in place for any children, that bills are getting paid and that each of you have access to funds, and that nobody is unilaterally cleaning out the accounts or runnign up debt. You will also need to discuss plans for the family home. 7. Work on resolving the rest of the issues

Ideally, the lawyers and parties will work together to decide what additional information or disclosure is needed, and do child support, spousal support and equalization of net family property calculations. Longer term arrangements for any children will be discussed. If there is no resolution, alternatives such as mediation, arbitration or court may be discussed. By the end of this stage, you will have a Separation Agreement or court order setting out all of the arrangements for custody, access, child support, spousal support, division of property and any equalization payment.

8. Divorce

The formal divorce is often the final step in the process. A divorce cannot be granted until there are adequate arrangements in place for child support. You will need a Certificate of Divorce in order to get remarried.

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