Chances are, you’re considering changes to improve your life in the new year. For many, that includes promises to exercise, eat healthier, and become more attentive to family and friends. “However, for those in the throes of marital turmoil, divorce may be inevitable,” states former District Court Judge Vicki L. Pinak. Vicki is the managing member of The Pinak Law Firm, PLLC in Fort Bend County, Texas.
Photos by Kelley Sweet Photography
With more than 32 years of experience, Vicki is well-qualified to handle any situation that may arise when her clients are contemplating divorce. Her experience as a family law litigator, mediator, arbitrator, and district judge provide her clients with advantageous insight to how a case may be perceived from the bench.
“To facilitate peace of mind, anyone considering a divorce in the new year needs to be prepared,” she states. Even if you only think it’s possible your marriage is headed in that direction, Vicki recommends the following steps to aid you during the process.
Gather Financial Documents
Divorce proceedings can often feel rushed in the beginning when emotions are high. This is especially true after the holidays if a spouse is caught off-guard without warning. “Sometimes a spouse will clear out all financial documents and change passwords to prevent the other spouse’s access, even before announcing a divorce is being filed,” Vicki states. “This is why it’s imperative you plan ahead.”
To reduce stress and position yourself in control, Vicki recommends compiling your financial statements for the past two years, including credit cards, bank and retirement accounts, tax returns, and investment accounts. Keep a copy of these documents in a safe, easily accessible place.
If Possible, Secure Liquid Funds
Vicki has seen numerous situations of financial abuse throughout her career. Sometimes a spouse will try to cut off the other party from financial access. Consider withdrawing money to an account solely in your name to assist with living expenses and payment of an attorney’s initial retainer. “To avoid feeling powerless, it’s better to have your own separate bank account containing enough funds to get you through at least two months’ worth of expenses,” she says. “If your spouse does not allow you access to financial accounts during your marriage, you should assume that behavior will not only continue, but may escalate during the divorce process. However, if your spouse is financially abusive and will become irate if you remove any funds, don’t. Your safety is more important.” When safety issues are on your mind, Vicki recommends contacting an attorney to discuss the best and safest way to handle your situation.
Create a Monthly Budget
You must know what you can and cannot afford on a monthly basis moving forward. Compile a budget of necessary expenses. The first piece of homework Vicki’s office gives clients is a list of common expenses. Clients can simply fill in the blanks to determine their monthly needs. Preparing a budget prior to filing will give you some direction.
Before Filing, Discuss Options on How to Avoid a Potentially Volatile Beginning
There are numerous ways to avoid an erratic beginning to a divorce. If you cannot communicate with your spouse for fear of a volatile reaction, Vicki suggests contacting an attorney to discuss options for maintaining safety. “It is important to discuss when a spouse will be served the petition and where you and your children will be while your spouse is being served,” Vicki recommends.
“If you don’t want your spouse to know you are calling an attorney, do not call from your cell phone,” Vicki warns. “Use a hard line or call from someone else’s phone. If you share a cell phone plan with your spouse, he or she will have immediate access to cell phone bills that reveal who and when you call or text.” Consider your spouse’s history of anger control. Use your best judgment and discuss your plan with an attorney before you act.
Changing Your Passwords and Accounts Should Be Discussed with an Attorney First
Since many married couples share cell phone plans, passwords, email accounts, and cloud-based accounts, digital spying has never been easier. If you are considering a divorce within the new year, it’s essential you discuss separating these accounts with an attorney. However, the process of doing so is not so easy. Your actions and timing are important, but what you say can also work against you.
Mind Your Manners
Be very mindful of what you say, text, or post on social media, as everything is discoverable during the divorce process and could be used against you. Assume that whatever you say, text, or post will end up in a courtroom. If your spouse is ugly to you in emails or texts, it’s best to reply in a respectful way. “Instead of reacting emotionally, wait responding to ensure you’re not using a tone or words that you wouldn’t want a judge to read,” Vicki says.
Always consider the possibility that an argument could be provoked by your spouse, and your response could be recorded without your knowledge. “With few exceptions, Texas is a one-party consent state, meaning as long as you are a party to the conversation, you can be recorded without your consent,” Vicki explains. She has seen parents lose custody and periods of possession as a result of audio recordings and videos.
Vicki earned her law degree from St. Mary’s University School of Law. Her career began with legendary attorney, Tom Alexander, handling extremely complex litigation matters for local celebrities and major corporations. In addition to many awards throughout her career, Vicki was recently selected by Living Magazine readers as Best Family Law Attorney in Fort Bend County in 2022. Her ability to strategically guide clients through the divorce process is proof of her expertise and leadership in family law.