08/19/2011 12:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

Getting Divorced: What is the Smart First Step?

The other day a woman called for advice. She just found out three days before that her husband was leaving. She has been a stay-at-home-mom with three children under 17 and maintains a healthy lifestyle supported by her husband's good fortune in the market. She wanted to know her rights and what lawyer she should call. She was in tears and all she could get out was that she needed to know her "legal rights." In an effort to calm her down and stop what was about to be the beginning of a train wreck, it dawned on me that this reaction is normal and yet a very unhealthy destructive trend.

For whatever reason, we have been conditioned to not even take a breath before we start lining up the front-line shooting gallery. What people do not understand is that in most states, the matrimonial laws are pretty good and set out very clear ways of handling assets, child support and some times even spousal support/alimony. While making decisions around money and kids needs to happen in a timely manner, waiting to at least get out of shock and emotional paralysis is the first prudent thing to do.

Contacting a mediator, lawyer or other professional to help you resolve your issues is necessary, but give yourself at least a couple of weeks or a month. Unless there is some alarming movement of money, keeping things status quo for 30 days is not going to make a difference in the long term. Tell your spouse that you just need a bit of time to catch your breath. Request that things remain status quo until you can both start laying the foundation and making sound decisions about how you are going to move forward. The fear is when one party feels that the other party has had a massive head start and perhaps got their "ducks in a row" long before informing their spouse of their intentions. That may be the case but that is water under the bridge for right now. What happens in the next 30 to 60 days is not likely to impact your legal rights, but could have a huge impact on the outcome if you are over reactive.

Sometimes the leaving party will not only drop the move out bomb, they may also start suggesting liquidating assets, or selling the matrimonial home. This is where you need to ask for time. Of course getting prudent legal advice and making sound decisions is a must but the timing can have a massive impact on the outcome and how much money you actually leave in your pocket. If you decide to call a lawyer in any kind of reactive state then you need to understand the consequences and the next series of steps you that will follow as your spouse will now have to do the exact same thing to position the defense or counter attack.

Slow down, get a counselor, and speak openly with your spouse about what you both want the next steps to look like in order to minimize the damage to your assets, relationships and kids. It is hard to stay in a proactive mode when you feel deceit or hurt but remaining as ego-less and grounded as possible will save you more then you know down the road.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend... with better advice.