Good records are essential to a successful result

Your financial records are evidence in the economic valuation of your marriage. The best time to compile this information is before the subject of divorce is raised. If you suspect divorce is in your future, begin now to collect and organize your records. Evidence can easily vanish in a divorce situation, and facts become more difficult to obtain as it progresses. If your spouse deliberately removes, conceals, alters or destroys key documents that you have no other access to, it's much more difficult to reach resolution and closure successfully.

You must know your budget facts. You can't make a case for or against maintenance amounts that are not based on solid financial data. Get detailed information about specifically what it costs to run your household, and to take care of children if you have them. Make a record of all costs so that you can negotiate from a position of knowledge and strength.

Without good records and detailed knowledge of your financial situation, you could be in danger. For example, your spouse can run up debts you may be responsible for. If you don't collect the data, your attorney will have to subpoena the information. That process is costly, time consuming and exhausting. Worst of all, it is not infallible and critical facts may never be discovered.

You'll need the last three years of financial documentation. That includes: your tax returns, a personal balance sheet, your will and other estate-related documents, the deed to your house or condo (or subscription agreement and proprietary lease for a co-op), your mortgage, insurance policies, 401K, IRA, and pension, brokerage, credit and loan statements, car registrations, and a list of any other assets like art, jewelry, antiques, etc.

If you have a business, you'll also need to supply business and tax records, including any key documents. Your attorney will fill you in on whatever additional material is needed.

Review and make copies of cancelled checks. These can reveal financial information of which you were previously unaware, and may be critical later on.

Download all computer data to a disk and store it safely outside your home. E-mail and other computer files can have vital data essential to achieving a successful result. You may be surprised to discover what's there. If you don't know how to collect the data in electronic format, hire a computer technician to come to your home and office to do it for you. Then store it in a safe place only you have access to.

Take special care to document your spouse's income and assets. However, compiling this data does not include raiding his or her private papers. You're looking for financial information about the marriage to which you are entitled. It's not a good idea to be invasive and go through your partner's personal property. If you do and it's discovered, you'll only incite more rage. Sneakiness can backfire on you.

Write down everything you contributed to the marriage that had economic value, or in any way added to the financial stability of your marriage and family. For example, did you pay for or contribute to your spouse's professional training? Were you actively involved in helping your spouse manage a business? Did you host many important business dinners and meetings?