DIY Divorce: Your Marital Settlement Guide

Patricia TichenorLegal

divorce marital settlement concept

Spouses who agree to pursue an uncontested divorce often choose to represent themselves to save the money and hassle of retaining an attorney. Going down this path requires a couple to draft a marital settlement agreement, which spells out everything you and your spouse have agreed to in terms of dividing assets and debts, supporting each other financially, and how you will handle child custody and visitation (if applicable).

This document will eventually be filed with the court as part of your divorce proceedings, so it’s important to draft and file it correctly. If you’re contemplating a DIY divorce, here is a handy marital settlement guide to help you better understand the process.

Financial decisions you’ll have to make during a divorce

Once you and your spouse have agreed to separate, your first step toward an uncontested DIY divorce is making decisions regarding your separation. Eventually, these decisions will be incorporated into your formal marital settlement agreement.

Here are a few important financial decisions you will need to make upfront:

  • Divide property: If you and your spouse own property together, you need to decide whether you will sell or keep your home. If you’re selling, how will you divide the profits? If you’re keeping it, who will stay in the marital home and hold the title? 
  • Splitting up joint credit and banking accounts: Any jointly held checking, savings, and credit accounts will need to be split up, and you will need to decide how to
  • Tax changes: From claiming dependents, childcare credits, and assigning head of household status, the tax side of a divorce can be one of the more complicated aspects of a divorce. To help tackle these issues, it can help to hire a CPA or tax professional to guide you.

FAQs about your marital settlement agreement

The following questions come up frequently among separated couples who are drafting their marital settlement agreement.

  • Do we need to live separately? No. After you’ve had the hard talks with your spouse, it’s only natural to dash out of the house as soon as possible. However, for some couples, two separate residences might not be financially feasible. Also, there may be a lot of items to distribute between a couple, and that kind of moving and distribution cannot happen overnight. In fact, it can even be beneficial to stay in the same residence for a little while during their separation and divorce, especially if they have young children.  You do need to stop sharing a bed and bedroom together, and essentially act as roommates, in addition to ensuring you tell family and friends that you’re separated.
  • When can we separate our assets and finances? You can begin separating finances and assets as soon as you decide to separate from each other, with the exception of retirement assets, which will require entry of a final order of divorce and possibly another court-order called a QDRO which allows you to divide retirement assets tax-free as part of the terms of your Marital Settlement Agreement once you’ve been granted a divorce. For non-retirement assets, while you do not have to wait until the divorce is finalized, it is strongly advisable that you put in writing when and how assets will be divided and sign a final written, notarized agreement before dividing finances to ensure each of you follows the terms you agreed to and has the power to enforce those terms if one of you happens to “change their mind” after the fact.
  • Are verbal agreements enough? Although a judge does not second-guess or deviate from the terms set forth in a Marital Settlement Agreement when filed as part of an uncontested divorce, the terms you put down on paper are enforceable by the court if you fail to comply with them once they are incorporated (by reference) into your Final Order of Divorce. If you only make verbal agreements, no formal institution can hold you to your word, as it was not put in writing. More importantly, a judge cannot grant a Final Order of Divorce without a signed and notarized settlement agreement on file with the court unless you want to schedule several days of court hearings and spend thousands of dollars to have the judge decide how to divide things for both of you.
  • What if we don’t agree on everything? If you and your spouse can agree on some things but not others, a partial settlement agreement may be the best path for you. In this type of agreement, you write down and notarize everything you do agree on and ask a judge to determine the rest. This way, your divorce can still move forward (assuming you have met the minimum separation time of one full year, or six full months if you have no minor children).

Common myths about marital settlement agreements

Despite persistent myths, there are some things about marital settlement agreements that simply aren’t true.

  • You can’t change the agreement once it’s filed. If you and your spouse need to make changes to a filed martial settlement agreement (particularly regarding child support and custody arrangements), you may file a Motion of Modification and have a judge approve or deny the changes you seek. A well-drafted settlement agreement should also have provisions which preserve the right for you and your spouse to agree to written modifications of the terms agreement if your circumstances change.
  • There’s no consequence if a spouse violates the agreement. If a spouse can prove the other has violated the terms of a marital settlement agreement, the judge can find the guilty party in contempt of court, since a settlement agreement is part of a binding legal court order.  Enforcement provisions should be included in any well-drafted agreement.
  • Everything must be decided before the agreement can be signed. This is not true and is actually the very reason partial settlements exist. While asking a judge to rule on certain issues can extend the process, partial settlement agreements can at least allow a couple to begin their divorce proceedings.

When to get help with your DIY divorce

Divorces can be difficult, and unless you have a legal background, it’s unlikely that you will know what to do in every situation that may arise during your DIY divorce. A legal coach can not only address legal concerns you may have, but their guidance also incorporates financial and logistical aspects as well. This is especially helpful when there is a financial imbalance between spouses.

Need help with your Virginia DIY divorce case? Schedule a complimentary 15-minute consultation with My Legal Case Coach to discuss your circumstances and learn how we can guide you through the process with our legal case form packets and virtual 1:1 coaching services.