Expert advice on what family lawyers need to know in order to provide better service to their clients and grow their practice in the process.
1. Advise your clients to protect their alimony and/or child support income in case the ex-spouse becomes disabled.
As a family lawyer, you probably insure your income in case of a disability. Were you aware that there are plans that allow your clients to insure their spousal and/or child support income in the event the ex-spouse becomes totally disabled and is unable to continue making support payments? Support payments need to be protected given that the probability of disability occurring during one’s working years is two to three times greater than the risk of death. Most divorce agreements protect support payments against death, but do not include disability protection. If the payor of support becomes disabled, the payments may be reduced or terminated. Include Disability Insurance against support payments in your client’s Settlement Agreement to make sure that an unexpected disability won’t leave your client in financial jeopardy.
— Kenneth A. Bloch (CLU), President, Family ValueGuard, www.FamilyValueGuard.com
2. Avoid having the Plan Administrator reject your QDRO. The plan administrator has the final say about a QDRO. Many attorneys think that if the judge orders it, then the plan must comply. However, the plan cannot provide any benefit that is not available under the terms of the plan. There are many reasons why proposed QDROs are rejected; here are some of the more common ones.
- Referencing the wrong plan name.
- Submitting the wrong type of QDRO for the Plan.
- Failing to address increases or decreases in a defined contribution plan.
- Incorporating an invalid valuation date.
- Failing to include beneficiary language for defined contribution plan.
- Improperly combining a percentage and a dollar amount.
- Selecting a disallowed form of benefit designation for defined benefit plan.
- Failing to indicate when payments will be made.
- • Designating a form of payment that is inconsistent with plan guidelines.
— Theodore K. Long (MComm), President, QdroDesk, www.qdrodesk.com
3. Learn how modern drug and alcohol testing could affect your clients. Reliable forensic testing results can make-or-break a child-custody case in divorce; you owe it to your clients to know what state-of-the-art technology can expose. Did you know that fingernails are a reliable specimen to determine use of substances with a history that goes back three months for alcohol and up to six months for certain drugs? Unlike hair, biomarkers locked in fingernails are not affected by chemical processing. Even if a spouse comes in with no fingernails, you can simply wait two weeks for the nails to grow out a sufficient quantity to test. What is positive in a nail today will still be positive in two weeks. Today’s scientific instruments are much more sensitive, and there’s new research in biomarker testing. A modern drug-testing lab can get accurate results from fingernails, hair, and even dried blood spots. PEth is another cutting-edge test for direct alcohol biomarker: five dried blood spots can show binge alcohol consumption in the last three weeks.
— Nancy J. Parra (MA), Marketing Communications Manager, United States Drug Testing Laboratories, www.USDTL.com
4. Protect your client’s credit during and after divorce. Credit harm indemnification and recovery is best achieved when the mutual indemnification agreement clearly specifies credit reputation damage, rather than expecting it to be part of a general indemnification clause. Credit harm resulting from one spouse’s (mis)behavior can have an economic impact on the innocent spouse for at least seven years — and possibly for ten years per the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Credit harm will impact the couple’s individual as well as joint accounts. Violations include failure to notify the spouse that agreed-upon payment(s) will not be made, failure to make the payment in a timely manner or at all. In a recent case, the spouse who remained in the family home missed three mortgage payments and the property was sold as a short sale. Both spouses were on title, so this damaged the other spouse’s credit score, causing credit-card cancellation and withdrawal of a mortgage refinance offer. After the damage was monetized in an expert report, the case was settled with financial recovery to the credit-injured spouse. In another case, the husband flagrantly used joint account funds in a fiduciary breach and TRO violation; because of the report, the bench awarded $35,000 to the credit-injured wife.
— Georg Finder (ICE), Credit Damage Evaluator, www.CreditDamageExpert.com
5. Get a smartphone-friendly website and get more business for your law firm. Designed for viewing on a laptop or computer monitor, regular websites are mostly illegible and frustrating to visitors viewing them on smartphones. This makes it difficult for visitors to find what they want — including your contact information. If you make it easy for potential clients to call or email you while they have their phones in their hands, they will. Not all smartphone-friendly websites are created equal. Make sure your smartphone-friendly website keeps your branding and design, and allows visitors to call, email, or find you on a map with just one touch. There are generic versions that do not feature “Call Us”, “Email Us”, or “Find Us” buttons, and they strip all your attorney pictures, logo, and the customized website design that you have already paid for. Google research shows that smartphones are used everywhere: 96% at home, 83% on the go, and 69% at work. According to the Pew Internet Project, 58% of American adults now have a smartphone. Just think of the business you are leaving behind if your website is not smartphone-friendly!
— Martha Chan (MBA), V.P. Marketing, Divorce Marketing Group, www.DivorceMarketingGroup.com
6. Bring in financial experts at the beginning of the case. When working with financial professionals – such as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA), forensic accountant, or business valuator – consider hiring them at the onset of the divorce process. Your case will run much more smoothly because the financial expert can explain the financial options and consequences to your clients — which should enable them to make an informed decision about a settlement offer much sooner. Also, if you give your client the opportunity to make a decision about whether to use a financial professional or not, they will gain a sense of control during a process that often leaves them feeling out of control. Your clients will appreciate your effort to introduce them to a service they might need instead of having them find out about it after the divorce is final – and you will appreciate having an expert to “hold their hand” through the financial process. Many financial professionals will not charge (or offer reduced fees) for an initial consultation.
— Tim C. Satre (CFP®, CDFATM), EDS, www.DivorceAndMoneyHelp.com
7. In child-custody cases, a thorough background check on the other parent and his/her new partners can help demonstrate what is in the child’s best interests.
A thorough background search should ensure your client’s children will be safe with the other parent and any live- in boyfriends/girlfriends. A good report will reassure your client that his/her children are not being cared for by an irresponsible new partner, or one with a criminal past and/or addiction issues. When spousal or child support is involved, the ex-spouse may try to claim unemployment, or that they have no assets; a background search can verify if he/she is telling the truth or simply does not want to pay. Finally, if the parent has skipped out or is elusive, a private investigation agency should be able to find him/her.
— Ron Ciancioso, President, Confidential Resources, www.ConfidentialResources.com
8. Get technology on your side to organize client files and billing.
Software designed for family lawyers and clients can organize your client files and communication between you and your client as well as between your client and their ex. You can use them to track parenting schedules, co-parenting communications, email and financial documents from professionals both inside and outside your firm, as well as hours for billing and invoicing. To maximize both function and efficiency, choose a product that integrates directly with consumer co-parenting software designed to help separated and divorced parents communicate better and reduce conflict. These types of products create opportunities to improve your client relationships and to responsibly increase billable hours.
For Part Two of this article, and to read more advice, click here.