Selecting your Professional Divorce Team
How to choose the best possible advisors during your divorce – including a list of useful questions to ask when you interview these professionals.
Divorce is a complex process that affects just about every aspect of your life: legal, financial, emotional, and physical. Unless you've been married for only a short time and have no property, assets, or children, you'll probably need the advice of more than one divorce professional to help smooth the road ahead of you. You will need expert services from one, some, or all of the following professionals: lawyer, mediator, accountant, divorce financial specialist, and therapist. While each of these professionals can help you through a challenging transition period, finding the right ones can be stressful.
Here's a guide to help you choose the best possible advisors to support you with your divorce. At the end of this article, you'll also find a list of useful questions to ask when you interview these professionals.
Selecting a Divorce Lawyer
Choosing a lawyer may be the most important decision you'll make during your divorce. As in any profession, there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. It's up to you to do your homework and to ask the right questions to determine which group your lawyer belongs to (a list of questions to ask a potential lawyer is provided at the end of this article). Look for a lawyer who:
- Practices family law. A lawyer who specializes in corporate tax isn't going to be much help to you.
- Has experience. Make sure your lawyer has practiced family law for a while, and find out if they have written books or lectured/mentored other family lawyers.
- Is a skilled negotiator. If your case can be settled without a protracted court battle, you'll probably save a great deal of time, stress, and money.
- Is firm. If you end up going to court, you don't want your lawyer to crumble at the first obstacle.
- Is reasonable. You want someone who'll advise you to settle if the offer is fair, and not have the case drag on to satisfy your (or your lawyer's) desire to "win."
- Is not in conflict with your best interests. Don't share a lawyer with your spouse, or hire your spouse's best friend (even if this person is a friend of yours, too), business partner, or any member of your spouse's family to represent you – even if you're on good terms with them. Aside from the obvious conflict of interest, you'll likely create enemies and spark a family feud before your divorce settles.
Selecting a Divorce Mediator
With mediation, you, your spouse and a third–party mediator work together to negotiate how to live successful lives apart. Mediation can save time and money, and is usually less emotionally damaging than a full–blown court battle. Together, you and your spouse work out an agreement you can both live with from the same side of the mediation table, rather than opposing sides of the courtroom.
Mediation isn't an option in all divorce cases. However, when both parties are willing to look at the issues instead of the emotions that cloud the issues, mediation is worth a try. Statistics show that when a case is negotiated through a mediator, the parties tend to stay out of court in the future. Another benefit of a mediated settlement is that you and your spouse will learn powerful new communication techniques, which is particularly important if you have children or share business interests.
Mediation doesn't normally eliminate the need for a lawyer, and your lawyer will have to approve any agreements made by you and your spouse before they become legally binding. However, the mediation process can speed up negotiations because you and your spouse communicate directly instead of through a "broken telephone" chain from your spouse, to your spouse's lawyer, to your lawyer, and then finally to you. Many family law practitioners are also trained mediators, and so finding a mediator may simply be a question of asking your lawyer about his or her qualifications.
Selecting an Accountant
A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the USA or a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA Canada) in Canada can handle many of the financial matters of your case. His or her responsibility is to calculate you and your spouse's net worth, and to produce figures that are agreeable to both you and the courts. There are a number of different accreditations given to accountants, and you'll find these designations after their name. Wading through the differences between someone who is a CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) or a BCFE (Board Certified Forensic Examiner), or a member of the ASA (American Society of Appraisers), or a member of NACVA, (National Association of Certified Valuation Accreditation) may seem a daunting task, but by doing a little research, you'll come to understand what you need to know. If you think your spouse is hiding assets, a forensic accountant could be helpful. If you and/or your spouse own your own one or multiple businesses, a business valuator will be important to value company assets and also to value company goodwill.
You could ask to be introduced to an accountant through your lawyer. These two members of your divorce team may have to work in tandem from time to time, so it's beneficial to find someone with whom your lawyer is familiar. You can also ask your personal accountant (if you have one) to suggest someone who has a matrimonial background, but be sure to check his/her prior experience.
Selecting a Divorce Financial Advisor
When your marriage has dissolved, and even during the divorce process itself, you may want to employ a financial expert who has been specially trained in issues that pertain to separation and divorce.
Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) professionals tend to be financial planners or accountants who have completed the Institute of Divorce Financial Analyst's training. Equipped with the specific training on handling divorce cases, a CDFA can analyze settlements in the context of your long-term financial situation and inform you of the ones that appear fair and equitable on the surface, but will not stand the test of time. A CDFA can also reduce future uncertainty by forecasting the financial impact of alternative settlement proposals. For instance, a CDFA can tell you what the financial consequences will be of keeping your home instead of selling it. A CDFA can work with your lawyer and provide the financial data required to support your case.
Additionally, a CDFA can help you with budgeting, or assist with tax, estate, or retirement planning. He or she will help you organize your financial future by proposing a personalized plan with a time horizon, and a solid investment strategy to help you move towards financial stability after your divorce.
You'll also need valuations or other paperwork detailing property owned by you and your spouse (together or separately), and everything else from the contents of a safety deposit box to the cars to your family home. And while you'll be dealing mainly with "big ticket items," if something is very important to you, make sure it's on your list. If a business is involved, brokerage statements or corporate minute books will also be required. You may also require the services of a business valuator to provide an expert assessment of what the business is worth.
Basically, your accountant or divorce financial specialist needs to see any paperwork that would help to establish net worth and cash flow for both you and your spouse.
Selecting a Therapist
A therapist can help you deal with the various emotions that could get in the way of negotiating a divorce settlement. During your separation, you may experience grief, anger or depression. Also, until you achieve an "emotional divorce," you won't truly be free to create a fulfilling new life. A qualified therapist can help you work through the issues that are holding you back and keeping you stuck in the past.
However, the process of finding the right therapist can be a frustrating one. Anyone can call him or herself a "therapist" regardless of background or training, so do your due diligence to find someone competent. A therapist with an "MD" after his/her name is a psychiatrist; one with a "Ph.D." is a psychologist. If you see the letters "MSW," it means this person has a master's degree in social work, while an "LCSW" is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. If possible, choose a therapist who specializes in marriage and divorce.
Setting realistic limits and goals is an important part of the therapist's services. Good therapists are willing to listen, but they don't always have to agree with you. A good therapist will encourage questions that indicate you're interested in your own recovery. As you glance around the therapist's office, try to imagine yourself coming here every week for several months.
Remember, it can take three to five sessions before you have a clear idea of whether this therapist is the right one for you. However, if after this period you don't feel right about the relationship, then trust your inner voice, thank the therapist for his/her time, and interview the next candidate.
What to Ask your Divorce Professionals
When you first meet the divorce professional you may hire, you should be prepared with some well thought–out questions. Here are some suggestions of what to ask:
- What is your training, experience, credentials and affiliations?
- How long have you been working in this field?
- Do you serve divorcing people exclusively? If not, what percentage of your work involves divorcing people?
- How much direct experience do you have dealing with cases like mine? This is an especially important question if there are aspects that make your divorce unique.
- What is your approach? Do you have any biases? We all have certain viewpoints, which cloud our judgment, and professionals are not exempt. If you have children, you should ask if this professional has any strong views about the role of mothers or fathers, or about the care of children.
- Will you keep our communications confidential?
- Can I call you between scheduled meetings? If so, do you charge for these calls?
- Do you require a retainer, and if so, what is it? Is this fee refundable? What is your hourly fee? What are your payment terms?
- Approximately how much will your services cost? The professional will only be able to provide an estimate based on the information you provide and your realistic estimation of how amicable you and your spouse are. If you think your case is extremely simple, but your spouse's lawyer buries your lawyer in paperwork, you can expect your costs to increase.
- What do you think the outcome will be? Remember, you're looking for truthfulness here, not to be told a happy story.
- If your spouse has retained professionals of his or her own (and you know who they are), ask if they are familiar with any of them.
- How long will this process take? (Again, the answer will be an approximation.)
- What are my rights and obligations during this process?
- What are your hours? Do you work any evenings or weekends?
- How accessible is your office (close to parking, public transport; wheelchair accessible; etc.)? Is it located in a safe neighborhood?
- What happens next? Do I need to do anything? And when will I hear from you?
What to Ask Your Prospective Lawyer:
- What percentage of your cases go to trial? You may want to choose a lawyer with a low percentage here: a good negotiator who can settle your case without a long, expensive court battle. A good trial lawyer may be necessary if every indication is that nothing could possibly be settled outside of a courtroom.
- Are you willing and able to go to court if this case can't be settled any other way?
- Who will be handling my case: you, an associate, or a combination of senior and junior lawyers and paralegals?
- Should I consider alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, arbitration, or collaborative law? If so, do you or your firm offer any of these options?
What to Ask Your Prospective Accountant, Financial Advisor, Mediator, and Therapist:
- How many times have you been to court? These professionals may be testifying on your behalf, so you want someone who has experience in the courtroom. If possible, find out how these cases turned out.
- Have you worked with many lawyers? Ask for a few references, and call them.
Indeed, the path of divorce is typically a challenging one on many levels. The decisions you make now will affect your long-term future, and that of your children. By using the guidance and questions above to choose the right professionals, you'll not only make your divorce easier, less expensive, and less stressful – you'll also empower yourself to successfully start your new life after divorce.
Diana Shepherd is the Editorial Director and co-founder of Divorce Magazine.