To better serve your clients, here are three practice tips regarding “tools” to add to your divorce attorney’s toolbox.
By Ashley Tate Cooper, Esq., Family Law Attorney
As family law attorneys, we often are obliged to wear various “hats” when providing legal services to our clients. We have to be prepared to answer questions and provide meaningful guidance as to a myriad of complex and interesting issues that can arise in an everyday divorce setting and on a case-by-case scenario. As family law attorneys, we must recognize that we are not “experts” or “specialists” in every realm that is necessary to assist our clients from the inception of their dissolution litigation through its conclusion – and sometimes even thereafter in the post-judgment arena. Every day new issues arise and we are charged with the responsibility of promoting our client’s agenda, as well as advocating on their behalf, but also being mindful of how best to serve their respective needs.
I urge my own clients to reach out and engage with other professionals that can help them during this difficult, and often emotionally complex, time in their lives. There is no harm to the team approach. We do not want our client to rely solely upon legal advice if there are, for example, mental health issues, complex financial or tax implications, specialized legal nuances such as immigration or bankruptcy concerns, or the like. I often state to my new clients (and even repeat to my existing clients) that there are a variety of tools in a divorce attorney’s toolbox. This article is intended to provide divorce attorneys with a few practice tips on how to implement such tools to best serve our clients.
Divorce Attorney’s Toolbox: Mental-Health Professionals
We all have clients who are all at various stages of the divorce process. Some want the divorce and are more “at peace” with their decision to initiate proceedings. Some did not want the divorce at all and are completely devastated or shocked. I find that these types of litigants often turn to their divorce attorneys for guidance, both for the divorce process and to deal with their emotions. I find that this latter group, who need emotional reassurance during this process, are better suited being guided directly and promptly by a trained mental health professional who is equipped to help them with the coping tools or mechanisms to help them with this dramatic life change.
Practice Tip #1: When you recognize your client may be struggling emotionally with the prospect of the divorce process, or is unable to deal in an appropriate fashion with the various aspects of the divorce, it is imperative you suggest they seek immediate counseling or therapeutic services. After discussing with a client who I feel could benefit from such help, I will send a confirming follow-up letter or email to such client containing various versions of the following:
As discussed, while this firm empathizes with you and understands that the divorce process can be very difficult and emotionally distressing, we are concerned that your emotions may be overwhelming you at this time. We are also concerned that your decision-making ability may be clouded by the emotional stress you are currently feeling. We believe that it is in your best interests to find a therapist who is trained to work with those experiencing separation and divorce to assist you during this difficult time.
We feel it is important to document this concern with our client in writing.
Divorce Attorney’s Toolbox: Forensic Accountants/Tax Advisors
Many of our divorces contain fairly typical financial issues. However, there are certain circumstances where a case presents unusual or complicated financial intertwining. Some examples of when you may need an accountant include: tracing of funds after a long separation; running through various alimony scenarios; calculating pre-martial components of assets; quantifying perquisites to determine actual income and the like. There are also those situations where particular tax consequences can present themselves. I do not profess myself to be an accountant of any form. In fact, I hate math. However, I have an obligation to my clients, should the situation present itself, that they are aware of and consult with another tool in our toolbox: a forensic accountant or a tax advisor.
It is more than “covering” myself. I feel a deep sense of obligation (as many of us do) that ensure that each client has the most valid and relevant information available so they can make a reasonable decision considering all factors (be it involving tax implications or other accounting nuances) before entering into a binding and enforceable divorce agreement. Sometimes, I have a client who does not heed my advice to consult with a forensic accountant or a tax advisor: either because they disagree with me, or they do not wish to expend the funds to secure that information. In that case, I am compelled to address my concerns as well as my advice they consult with the financial professional.
Practice Tip #2: In every single divorce case that I handle, I instruct the client to meet with an accountant or another tax specialist to review the proposed terms of the agreement. I then include in my divorce agreements the following language (modified to apply to the case at hand):
The party hereby acknowledges that he/she was advised to consult with a tax accountant with regard to his/her previously filed joint income tax returns and future personal income tax returns. The party further acknowledges that his/her attorney specifically provided no representations and/or advice regarding the party’s income tax returns and the preparation thereof. The party further acknowledges that he/she was advised by his/her attorneys of his/her right to obtain an independent tax consultation from an accountant, certified public accountant, or other tax expert to analyze and explain any tax liabilities created by the dissolution of the marriage and this Marital Settlement Agreement. The party specifically acknowledges and represents that he/she is not depending on his/her attorney for tax advice.
Divorce Attorney’s Toolbox: Other Attorneys
Sometimes, a divorce case will require us to add new “tools” to our toolbox, which can include advice from other attorneys. In some divorces, complex or novel legal implications can manifest and it is important to direct your clients to consult with other attorneys who are well-versed in other areas of the law. For example, if I am representing a client whose spouse has filed for bankruptcy, I find it is important to schedule a bankruptcy consultation (with a bankruptcy attorney of my client’s choosing) to have the client explore all possible issues and potential consequences that may be involved with such a bankruptcy petition.
The same goes for criminal attorneys, immigration attorneys, and real estate attorneys for unusual issues that create a need to consult with attorneys who specialize in other areas of the law.
Practice Tip #3: I find it wise to have the client choose their own correlating attorneys for this additional advice. I do not want it to appear I hand-selected their potential counsel. If the client asks me for referrals, I always provide more than one name to my client so as to ensure a diverse answer base. Again, I would do so in writing to my client.
In sum, family law involves many different aspects of law across the board. At the end of the day, I want my clients to feel that they are making decisions that they can live with and find reasonable and fair given the circumstances. I often rely upon a variety of tools, including the few mentioned here, to help provide my clients with the best legal services available. After their divorce, I want my clients to look back at the process with confidence knowing their attorney was thorough in advancing and protecting their interests.
A partner at Weinberg & Cooper, LLC in Hackensack, New Jersey, Ashley Tate Cooper provides counsel to clients on all aspects of family law and matrimonial law. www.weinbergcooper.com
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