You need to know what you and your spouse are worth together and what you're worth on your own. It sounds like a big job but it comes down to a simple equation: Net Worth = Assets - Liabilities.
It does get a little more complicated. There are three categories of assets:
You're both entitled to a portion of each other's retirement benefits that were earned during marriage. In order to get part of your spouse's pension or 401(k), you'll need a lawyer to draw up a qualified domestic relations order, or QDRO (pronounced "quadro"). There are several options, including a one-time payment, monthly payments at retirement, or a lump-sum payment that you transfer directly into your own IRA, where your money will continue to grow tax-free until you retire. IRAs can be divided without a QDRO, as long as the division is clearly specified in your divorce agreement.
Be sure to consider the future value of these assets. If you give up pension, for example, in exchange for keeping the house or up-front money, you may feel short-changed when you reach retirement age. A pension can be very valuable down the road.
You may need to appraise real estate, artwork and collectibles to determine their value. If you both own a business, you will need to value it to determine the amount needed to buy out the other spouse's share of the business.
Information You Will Need
Gather your paperwork into one container, preferably mobile, that will help you be prepared and organized. Included should be:
Depending on what is being contested, you may also want to keep records for the following: A prioritized list of assets you want to keep. Your children's records, including how much time you spend with them, the activities you do together, and the expenses associated with their upbringing.
Remember, if you have your finances in order, you won't have to pay a lawyer to discover this information.