The process of divorce starts way before the paperwork is filed. Usually, the initiator of the divorce has been thinking about it for a while leading up to the final decision.

Whether you are the spouse initiating or receiving, it’s normal to feel a sense of urgency to do something. However, making hasty decisions in the early stages of divorce can lead to critical mistakes that hurt your settlement.

If you have decided to end your marriage, consider these important factors before you make any big changes.

1) Gather important family documents before you file.

A divorce often comes as a surprise to the other spouse, and some people handle that emotional shock better than others. In antagonistic divorce cases, parties have been known to hide important documentation from the other party, simply out of spite.

It’s a good idea to collect (and make copies of) all important family documents, including: the marriage certificate, children’s birth certificates and passports, tax returns, bank statements, mortgage and property tax statements, tuition and student loan paperwork, wills, living wills, powers of attorney, etc.

Rule of thumb: If the paperwork is related to money or the government, you should have a copy of it.

2) Continue living at home, if possible.

Cohabitating during a divorce can get uncomfortable. However, leaving the marital home can have serious consequences, especially for men.

In some custody disputes, the spouse who voluntarily left the marital home can be accused of “abandoning the family.” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Continuing to live in the home will demonstrate to the courts that parenting is your top priority. If your name is on the lease or mortgage, stay in the house.

Of course, this recommendation does not apply to instances of domestic abuse. If you feel the home is unsafe to live in, you should seek professional assistance. (If you are in immediate distress, please contact 911 or the Jersey Battered Women’s Service 24-hour help line: 973-267-4763)

3) Consult with a knowledgeable attorney who specializes in divorce.

When shopping around for a divorce lawyer, avoid general law practices. Interview attorneys who are solely focused on divorce and family law, and are well-established in the surrounding legal community.

A family law practice will also have access to a network of key professionals, including: financial planners, private investigators, forensic accountants, mental health counselors, process servers and more.

Your settlement will determine the course of the rest of your life. Don’t settle for a lawyer who “dabbles” in divorce cases.

4) Have a financial plan for during and after divorce.

This should come as no surprise, but divorces cost money. Between legal fees, changes in living arrangements, and custody/spousal support arrangements, there are a lot of moving pieces to the financial puzzle.

Both parties should have a short and long-term plan to build a stable financial future for themselves and their children. Stay-at-home spouses should start thinking about the possibility of rejoining the workforce. Both parties should be thinking about retirement, health care, estate planning, and future college costs.

An established divorce lawyer can recommend a trusted financial planner to help you answer these financial unknowns.

5) Understand that divorce is a process, not an event.

Many individuals believe the divorce ends when the settlement papers are signed. This is not necessarily the case.

Children go to college. People move or remarry. Financial situations change. Life goes on after a divorce, and your settlement will need to evolve with it.

An experienced divorce lawyer can help you navigate all types of post-judgment work, including: custodial arrangement changes, parental relocation, modifications to child support and alimony payments, and tying up case-specific loose ends when life throws a curveball.

Consult First, Act Later

Whether you have been thinking about divorce for a while, or your spouse caught you off-guard, do not make any major decisions in the heat of the moment.

Consult an experienced divorce lawyer as soon as possible to organize the facts of your case, and to develop an approach that serves the best interests of yourself and your children.