When a client hires us, the first order of business is to review documents. The typical list of documents we request includes tax returns and statements (i.e., W-2 or 1099 statements), bank and credit card statements, deeds and mortgage statements, health insurance and daycare costs, and vehicle registration or title, to name a few.

Reason #1 – To Identify the Marital Estate

Your attorney doesn’t know (with enough detail) what assets and debts you have. For example, a client might not realize a cash/sweep account is associated with an IRA or could forget there is an outstanding loan against the account.

Only by analyzing the documentation can an attorney properly advise you or start meaningful negotiation with the other attorney.

Reason #2 – Civil Discovery & Subpoenas

Just because you don’t plan to take your case to court doesn’t mean your ex won’t file a lawsuit. Once a lawsuit is filed, either party can serve civil discovery  which is the process by which the documents are made available to the opposing party before court. In a family law case, your life is an open book so to speak. Subpoenas require people to testify and/or provide documents. An attorney has the ability to prepare and serve a subpoena on you and anyone else.

Reason #3 – Court Rules

Court rules now require mandatory disclosure of these records, regardless of whether there is discovery and/or subpoenas. Even if there is no subpoena or discovery in a child support case, state Guidelines automatically require: “Income statements of the parents should be verified through documentation of both current and past income.” They go on to say “Suitable documentation of current earnings . . . includes pay stubs, employer statements, or business receipts and expenses, if self-employed.” Documentation of current income must be supplemented with copies of the most recent tax return to provide verification of earnings over a longer period.”

Reason #4 – Documents Are Evidence

If there is a lawsuit filed at some future date, you’ll have the proof to show the classification of assets and debts, whether assets and debts are marital, separate or divisible. Showing values of property and balances of debts and interest on specific dates is key, especially around the date of separation. For example, property in equitable distribution cases is valued as of the date of separation, but the mortgage payments made after the date of separation might also be a point of negotiation.

Why Several Years?

Sometimes you must trace financial transactions. For example, if you claim an asset is your separate property, it might be necessary to show whether any increase in value of the separate property is marital. Or, you might have to show that your credit card debt is marital when the account is in your sole name. That requires proof of what charges were made, charges that created the balance of the credit card account at the date of separation. This might mean tracing two or three years of charges on that credit card.

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