If you and your spouse have agreed to file for a no-fault divorce, you may be wondering where to begin, from a legal standpoint.
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, filing for this type of divorce requires you to be legally separated from your spouse for a minimum of one full year. However, if you have no minor children, you may file for divorce after six full months of separation, provided that you and your spouse have signed a valid settlement agreement.
What is a divorce settlement agreement?
A divorce settlement agreement, also known as a separation agreement, a marital settlement agreement, a separation and property settlement agreement, or a custody, support, and property agreement, is a legal document defining how you and your spouse plan to divide your assets and debts. It also outlines any specific terms you and your spouse mutually agree to abide by during and after your divorce, including spousal support (if applicable) and any custody, support, and visitation matters (if you have minor children together).
One key advantage to a settlement agreement is that you and your spouse can divorce on your own terms, without bringing any nasty details into the courtroom. In a no-fault, uncontested divorce case, a judge can simply review your agreement and incorporate its terms into your final order of divorce. It may also help speed along the already-lengthy divorce process by eliminating the need for multiple court appearances.
How to draft your settlement agreement
Even for the most amicable divorcing couples, it can be difficult and painful to draft your settlement agreement, as it forces you to confront the end of your marriage. Below, we provide a few tips to help you make the process smoother and easier.
1. Start your discussion about the agreement from a calm emotional place, in a neutral location.
If you and your spouse try to discuss the terms of your settlement agreement when you are emotionally charged, or if you’re in a place that feels uncomfortable (such as your former marital home), you may find it difficult to make much progress. Schedule a time and location with your soon-to-be ex – just like any other professional meeting – so you can both mentally prepare for the discussion ahead.
2. Get a good picture of your individual and joint assets.
Every bank account, credit card, loan, mortgage, lease payment, retirement account, property, vehicle, and valuable asset you own will need to be listed in your settlement agreement. Preparing a thorough list of these accounts and assets, including any that you own separately from your spouse, will make it easier to go through them and decide what to do with them moving forward.
3. Agree on your date of separation.
The date of separation listed in your agreement determines when you and your spouse can officially file for divorce. Your date of separation does not necessarily have to be the date you or your spouse moved out of your marital home – it can simply be the date you had a conversation in which you agreed to seek a divorce. However, if you are still under the same roof, be sure to specifically state in your agreement that you are living “separate and apart” (i.e., separate rooms and engaging in behaviors that suggest you are a couple).
4. Know what you want, but be prepared to compromise.
Drafting a settlement agreement is a negotiation. You do not have to sign any agreement that you feel is unfair, and you have a right to ask your spouse to consider different terms. However, understand that you will likely not get everything you want – and neither will your spouse. It’s important to know going into this discussion what you are willing to compromise on, and where you want to stand firm.
5. Consult an experienced attorney.
While it is possible to draft a settlement agreement without legal help, an experienced attorney understands the ins and outs of your home state’s laws regarding separation and divorce. Without consulting a family law professional, the language in your settlement agreement may inadvertently put you at a disadvantage when you begin your divorce proceedings.
To play it safe, we highly recommend hiring an attorney to help you draft your agreement. At a minimum, you should ask a legal professional review the one you and your spouse drafted before you notarize it.
The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor has nearly two decades of experience helping Virginia residents with their family law matters, including settlement agreements and divorce cases. Contact us to discuss your circumstances so we can help you take this important step in your separation.