A new team approach to traditional, litigated divorce.

By Barbara Shapiro, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®

As a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, I work with many types of attorneys – from mediators to aggressive litigators, from sole practitioners to lawyers in mid-size firms. Regardless of the model the attorney and their respective teams use, they all want the best for their clients.

In the mediation and collaborative models, neutrality is paramount both during and after the divorce. The traditional approach, on the other hand, takes an advocacy position. As such, the client is the central figure and the professional team – attorneys, paralegals, CDFA professionals, and any other recommended specialists – interact with each other on a professional level and with the client on the client’s level of understanding. This model is particularly successful with the financially unsophisticated spouse.

The model I call “The Circle of Support ™” allows the client to hear the same information several times from various sources; hopefully, this repetition will enable them to process the information correctly, which will allow them to make rational decisions based on fact. Often times clients – particularly unsophisticated clients – hear bits and pieces of information that they string together to reach incorrect conclusions. In addition to stalling the case, the client is most likely repeating the wrong information to both friends and relatives. Obviously, being incorrectly quoted can be disastrous to that particular professional’s reputation.

In my experience, the traditional “team” is loosely established and not very well organized. The attorney speaks to the CPA or CDFA individually, but we seldom (if ever) speak to each other or meet as a group to speak with the client. The lines of communication with the client are linear instead of being circular between the professionals and interactive with the client.

In the Circle of Support process, the attorney at all times is the team leader, and each subsequent professional is a specialized team-member. This approach accomplishes several goals:

  1. If the client does not understand a concept, it is explained early in the process
  2. If two heads are better than one, then four or five heads are better than two.
    1. By collaborating, the team might come up with a creative solution that could settle the case equitably.
    2. By collaborating with other professionals, the attorney could reduce potential oversight and subsequent liability.
  3. The client is well-informed and feels more in control of his/her destiny.
  4. The professionals may have met new referral sources.
  5. A satisfied client is a good source of referrals.

The concept obviously can be tailored to meet both the attorney’s and client’s specific needs and requirements, but it can make the divorcing process run more smoothly for everyone. Similar to the Collaborative process, the Circle of Support has one key difference: the professionals are able to work with the clients post-divorce. This is important because in some cases, there is a subsequent divorce issue that needs to be resolved. Also, most people – especially financially-unsophisticated spouses – who find someone they trust and feel comfortable with want to continue that relationship post-divorce; in the Collaborative model, they are prohibited from doing so.

To create the Circle of Support team, the attorney could make a practice of asking a client at the beginning of the case: “Do you have a financial professional you’re working with and intend to continue using post-divorce?” If the answer is “yes”, then the client has someone they know and trust on his/her team and the attorney has effectively networked and met a new professional he/she might want to work with in the future. If the answer is “no”, then the attorney can choose a financial professional that he/she thinks would mesh well with that client. Adding this professional to the Circle of Support would accomplish two objectives:

  1. There would now be a team-member who can make financial projections for the attorney to use.
  2. There would now be someone who could work with that client post-divorce.

This process could be repeated for other professionals required for a particular client/case. Asking the question creates a win/win for everyone and helps to make the case run more smoothly.

The president of H M S Financial Group, Barbara Shapiro, EDM² MSF CFP CFS CMC CDFA, has 20 years’ experience providing clients with comprehensive financial planning during and after divorce. She holds three Masters Degrees: in finance, counseling, and special needs. She is the Chair of the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts’ Ethics Committee, and the former Treasurer of the Divorce Center.www.hms-financial.com