What family lawyers need to know to satisfy clients and grow practice? Divorce-industry professionals offer expert advice on the subject.
When parents oppose shared parenting, it is often because they are afraid. Parents feel very vulnerable during divorce and are afraid of losing control over access to their kids; they also fear loss of financial security. It is tempting to appeal to their sense of outrage and stoke their anger toward the other parent. Parents will seize on these feelings because they feel more powerful, but it is only a short-term fix. In the end, their ability to cooperate with the other parent and to put the children’s needs first will determine their long-term comfort and happiness. Divorce professionals can show their humanity for these frightened parents by asking themselves if their advice serves the long-term goal of cooperative co-parenting, or undermines it by stoking the fires of outrage and conflict. Even if parents are not currently demonstrating respectful communication and cooperation, most parents can learn these skills.
– Donald A. Gordon (Ph.D.), Executive Director, Center for Divorce Education, www.online.divorce-education.com/attorney
2. Be realistic with clients regarding financial outcomes, and make sure the financial affidavit is rock-solid.
Don’t overestimate the likely outcome just to secure a client’s business. Setting achievable client expectations regarding assets, liabilities, and support will help your client recognize and accept a reasonable settlement proposal – and make sure that divorce costs and taxes are factored into your projections. If spousal support will be an issue, hire an independent financial expert to perform a lifestyle analysis: tracking the marital lifestyle will ensure that no expenses are overlooked and will assist with keeping client expectations in check. A detailed financial affidavit is the foundation on which you will build your case. If that foundation is full of holes, your case will likely collapse. If your firm does not have the time and/or expertise to help your client to identify and then find all the necessary documentation to create an accurate financial affidavit, make a referral to a financial professional who can lead the client through the process – and ensure there are no nasty surprises if your case goes to trial.
– Cathy Belmonte Newman (CDFA, MBA), Principal, F4 Financial, www.f4financial.com
3. Don’t forget the taxes!
Attorneys often forget to address taxes in settlement agreements: items such as child exemptions, taxable alimony deduction, carry forwards such as capital losses, NOLs & foreign tax credits, and prior year tax refunds applied to the current year, just to name a few. Always look at the prior year’s tax return to make sure your client receives their fair share of tax credits and deductions; although it won’t supply cash up-front, it could end up saving your clients money in the long run as they move forward in their new life.
– Rod Moe (CPA, CVA, Cr. FA, ABV), President, and Heather Moe (CPA), Forensic Accountants at Roderick C. Moe Accountants, www.rodmoecpa.com
4. Offer Payment Options.
When two law firms are equally qualified, clients may choose the firm that offers a more convenient payment plan. A firm that works with clients to create an agreed-upon payment plan will increase the likelihood of getting paid on-time and in-full. This can be beneficial in a divorce situation where funds may be closely monitored or the client is on a fixed monthly budget. Some firms offer on-time payment discounts: if a client pays within five business days, for example, they receive 10% off their bill. You will need to find the right combination to motivate your particular clients.
– Amy Porter (CPP), CEO of LawPay, www.lawpay.com
5. Carefully examine all financial documents – bank statements, credit card statements, etc. – to determine possible hidden assets and income.
As a forensic accountant, the first items I ask for in a divorce case are the bank account and credit-card statements. These show the habits of the individual. For example, were the appliances purchased for the workplace or were they for the home? Why does the company credit-card show a down-payment on an auto when the company that s/he is employed for pays the lease of the auto that the employee is driving? Why is the business doing so poorly that they are increasing the line of credit if sales are on the rise? It is crucial for an attorney to thoroughly discover all financial matters in a divorce case – usually with the assistance of an accredited forensic accountant.
– Larry Goldsmith (CPA, JD, CFF, MAFF), Head of Forensic Accounting and Litigation Support, CJBS, www.CJBS.com
6. If there have been allegations of alcohol abuse in your case, think “3-3-3” to choose the right test for your needs.
The most objective alcohol testing results are accomplished using direct alcohol biomarkers such as EtG and PEth. EtG and PEth are direct products of alcohol metabolism; indirect biomarkers (e.g., MCV and CDT) indicate physiological effects of alcohol consumption on the body. These physiological effects can also be attributed to non-alcohol related disease states, such as chronic liver disease, so results using indirect biomarkers are easily challenged. A positive EtG result in fingernail or hair specimens can indicate multiple occurrences of high alcohol consumption within a three-month window of detection prior to testing. High alcohol consumption is any drinking that elevates blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 g/dl or higher. PEth is detected in dried blood spot samples and can indicate high alcohol consumption within the three weeks prior to specimen collection. In urine, an EtG positive can indicate alcohol consumption within three days of specimen collection. When requesting alcohol testing, think “3-3-3” – three days, three weeks, three months – to figure out which test meets your needs.
– Joseph Salerno (MS), Science Writer, United States Drug Testing Laboratories, www.USDTL.com
7. Use a neutral forensic accountant to prepare all of the financial aspects of a divorce to save your clients time, money and energy.
If each spouse engages a forensic accountant, chances are that the two accountants will agree on 80% or more of the financial issues. Then the accountants spend time together to see if they can agree on the remaining 20%; if not, then outstanding items will end up being negotiated in mediation or decided by a judge. Having one neutral forensic accountant reduces the accounting fees almost by half, saves time in collecting and sharing documents, and makes discovery much easier because there is less tendency to hide information. There will still be some issues that the husband and wife will not agree on; those can be negotiated in mediation or decided by a judge. Mediation is also less expensive when there is only one forensic accountant attending; often times, the neutral accountant can assist the mediator in the financial aspects of the divorce negotiations.
– Harriett I. Fox (CPA, MBA), www.harriettfoxcpa.com
8. Make sure your clients’ spousal and/or child support income is protected if the payor-spouse becomes disabled.
Most attorneys advise clients to obtain life insurance to protect income from support payments – but what happens if the payor becomes totally disabled and cannot work? Given the fact that disability is 2–3 times more likely to occur than a premature death, disability insurance for support payments is crucial. This kind of policy protects all the parties involved: for the recipient, it eliminates the concern that the ex-spouse would be unable to meet the obligation if he/she became disabled; and for the payor, it means that he/she will not have to go back to court to argue for reduced payments because of the disability, or be forced to liquidate personal or business assets to cover support payments.
– Matthew M. Bloch, Director of Operations, Family ValueGuard, www.FamilyValueGuard.com
For Part One of this article, and to read more advice, click here.