Getting a divorce is a significant milestone for anyone. For most people, it’s an unfamiliar and confusing process, and can provoke uncertainty and anxiety even under the best of circumstances.
Part of the challenge is that the process is filled with volumes of paperwork – from the first moment you draft a separation agreement, through to months or years later when you get your Divorce Certificate. Organizing your documents is key.
Here are some tips for making sure your divorce materials are as well-organized as possible.
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The Gathering Process
One of the key documents in every divorce – no matter how simple or complex – is the Financial Statement. You and your Ex will each prepare one separately, and it respectively summarizes your financial history, current position, and future needs.
The pivotal task of putting together the materials that feed into your Financial Statement will set the stage for the rest of the proceedings. The better prepared you are, the better your chances of optimizing the legal outcome based on the merits of your position.
The task involves making a list of all your assets and debts, This means you must gather your Income Tax returns, pay stubs, bank account statements, investment, pension and RRSP information, credit card statements, insurance policies, mortgage statements, home ownership expenses, car loan statements, pre-paid funeral arrangements, real estate title and transaction-related documents, marriage contracts, and so on. It also requires you to estimate your monthly expenses, both past, present and future.
Ideally, you will already have all your financial information well-documented. But if you want it to be well-presented to the court and opposing counsel, it must be very well-organized as well.
The process of assembling your financial materials can be painstaking. One of the often-overlooked ways of making the organizing process easier is to get help: Your lawyer, accountant, financial advisor and bank can help you locate and gather the right documents that you will need.
How Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect Things?
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, all courts and tribunals in Ontario have had to close indefinitely as of March 2020. Family Courts have been forced to devise new ways of continuing to delivering justice to litigants, many of whom have urgent or time-sensitive matters. Adjustments have been made to existing administrative processes, to accommodate government-imposed social distancing mandates.
Among the changes is a step towards allowing for electronic filing of documents, and the prospect of “virtual” case conferences and “virtual” hearings using teleconferencing technology.
These procedural shifts – many of which are expected to become permanent even after the COVID-19 is under control – have prompted the courts, lawyers and litigants to likewise refine their methods for organizing their materials in anticipation of upcoming hearings (however they may be are held).
You should prepare for these changes as well. Organize any electronic documents in file folders that allow you to locate them easily. Make backup copies of all files, and store them separately from the main copy (on a backup drive or separate computer) in case the original is accidentally lost or destroyed.
Develop a System – and a Backup
Having gathered the information you will need for your divorce proceedings – whether in hardcopy, electronically, or a combination of both – the next step is to develop an overall system of organization that works for you. This not only helps you locate your supporting documents and files, but also allows you to fulfill any requests for them from your lawyers, accountant, hired experts, or the court.
Although your organization method must be tailored so that it makes sense to you conceptually, one strategy involves putting similar or related-theme documents together. For example, all documents relating to investments should be grouped together in one folder; documents relevant to ongoing expenses relating to the (former) matrimonial home should appear in another.
Again, the goal is to devise a system that ensures you can easily find any document when you need it.
Technology Can Help
The Shulman Law Firm has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by transitioning the physical law firm into a fully remote operation. This includes using secure computer software and related processes that keep client file matters organized, while addressing client privacy and confidentiality concerns.
On an individual level, you can take similar measures to ensure that your information is organized. Financial information, for example, can be corralled using spreadsheet programs, or in data management software geared to the home user.
It’s worth repeating: No matter what medium you use to store information (e.g. paper or electronic files, or both), you will want to make sure you have copies and backups.
Lack of Organization Can be Costly!
Being organized is efficient. Not being organized can actually cost you money.
In a few recent Ontario cases, the courts have ruled that a Family Law litigant was so disorganized in his or her documentation and court-filed material that it impacted the orderly progress of the trial or hearing itself. The court saw fit to impose a significant costs order against him or her.
For example, in one decision the court ordered the defendant to pay $46,000 of the plaintiff’s legal costs, partly because the trial had been adjourned and repeatedly delayed due to her lack of preparation. The defendant, who represented herself, had failed to organize her documentation and repeatedly needed to ask the court for its opinion as to the relevance of the individual documents in her own files – a job that she or a hired lawyer should have done well in advance of the hearing.
In a second case, also involving a self-represented husband, the matter was factually complex and involved a great deal of documentation. The court observed that the trial spanned 21 days, “explained in large part by [the husband’s] poor presentation of his case and his disorganized presentation of his documents.” In many instances his materials were irrelevant and repetitive, or were else missing entirely. In the briefs he gave to each of the court, witnesses, and opposing counsel, the listed order of documents did not match each other, which caused confusion. In the end, the court ordered the husband to pay the wife over $250,000 for her legal costs.
What’s the Take-Away?
The Family Court process is complex, and the outcome of any given case is never certain. As a litigant, one of the elements that you can control is the level of investment you make in preparing for your divorce proceedings.
On the front-end, any amount of time you spend on getting your documents in order will be well-spent. It will make the entire process less stressful, and will help you get the best possible results.
If you need help, WE ARE HERE.
 Aviado v. Goralczyk, 2005 CarswellOnt 2747,  O.J. No. 2698 at para. 10.
 Derakhshan v. Narula, 2018 ONSC 2125, 2018 CarswellOnt 5208 at para. 16.