Failing to properly close a file in family law cases shall deprive you of a great marketing tool. It lets you make referrals and get feedback from clients.
By Jonathan R. Levine, Family Law Attorney
After meeting a new client and receiving the retainer, perhaps the divorce lawyer’s favorite task is returning from the courthouse with the Final judgment and Decree and shipping the file to storage. Unfortunately, obtaining the Final judgment and Decree is only the beginning of the end. Simply mailing the client the Final Judgment and sending the file to storage is one of the biggest malpractice traps in family law today.
How to Properly Close a File: List of Issues and Items
- Thank your client for choosing you to represent them. Let the client know it was an honor and a pleasure.
- Have your client procure a current Last Will and Testament. Generally speaking, a will is automatically revoked upon divorce, unless it was specifically made in contemplation of that divorce. Therefore, your client will need to procure a new Last Will and Testament. You should refer them to three estate planners to help them with the process (and then call all three to inform them of the referral).
- Refer your client to a certified public accountant to assist them in future tax issues as well as with the tax implications of the settlement agreement. Again, give them three recommendations.
- Advise your client of the possible need to file IRS form 8822. It notifies the IRS of where to send correspondence or notices to the client.
- Advise your client to notify all insurance companies, including, but not limited to, health, life, disability, automobile, property, and home owners and notify them of the divorce. It is possible that an insurance company could consider the divorce a change in condition sufficient to deny your client coverage. If appropriate, recommend three insurance agents, because many times the current agent is a friend of the former spouse and your client may not want to deal with that agent.
- Notify your client to change the beneficiary of certain assets such as an IRA, retirement accounts, and life insurance policies, as a divorce does not automatically do so.
- If your client is the recipient of certain funds from their spouses retirement account and a QDRO is required, it is imperative that you follow up on preparing the QDRO, having it submitted to the judge for signature and, finally, having it approved by the plan administrator. It is also important to confirm that the funds have actually been transferred.
- Tell your client to diary the critical dates in the agreement such as when they will be receiving child support, alimony, and/or lump sum payments.
- Confirm with your client that you have no original documents belonging to the client.
- Inform your client of all issues relating to medical insurance and CQBRA and the need to act within thirty days to ensure they are properly and adequately covered.
- Discuss the transfer of both real and personal property and whether a quit claim deed or title transfer form must be signed, and who will bear the responsibility to prepare that form.
- Inform your client to close and/or cancel all credit cards, and to notify the financial institutions of the divorce and your clients’ non-responsibility for any future issues.
- Tell your client to provide the settlement agreement to their children’s school, so that the school is adequately informed of custody issues as Well as their duty or responsibility to provide school records to your client.
- Inform your client of remedies for nonpayment of child support, alimony, and property division payments.
- Tell your client to keep accurate records of all payments made and/or received.
- If any fees are owing, first inform your client that you will not provide them with a copy of the Final judgment and Decree until you are paid in full. While more of a psychological factor than anything else, most clients want that piece of paper granting the divorce, as it helps them with the closure issue. If that tactic fails, inform your client that if you are not paid within thirty days from the Final judgment, you will place an attorney’s lien on their property to ensure payment.
- Inform your client of issues relating to Social Security benefits and their automatic entitlement if they were married for more than ten years.
- Tell your client specifcally the actions that your firm will be taking to assist them in closing the file.
- Tell your client that he or she must do the following things themselves and then specifically list each task your client must do.
- Enclose a questionnaire. Now is the perfect time to do a short questionnaire, having your client evaluate your firm and the services provided.
- Make your client sign a copy of the letter and return it to your office acknowledging that they have read and understand all instructions.
- Thank your client again.
By failing to properly close the file you could easily undo much of what you obtained for your client. It is also a great marketing tool, in that it allows you to make referrals to tax specialists, estate planners, insurance agents, and others, as well as getting feedback from your client in the form of the questionnaire.
Finally, most important, you and your client now know what must be done, and by whom, to properly conclude your representation of the client.
Jonathan Levine is a partner in the law firm of Levine & Smith, LLC in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached http://levinesmithlaw.com