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Taking a Team Approach to Divorce

When I work with divorcing clients in my practice, I often encourage a team approach. Divorce is a complex and emotionally charged process, and very few professionals are equipped to effectively answer every single need that a client may have. This article aims to outline the various professionals who might make up your team, and help you decide when to call on them.

The Attorney

The dissolution of a marriage is first and foremost a legal process. A legal process requires a legal expert, so an attorney is indispensable.

When selecting your attorney, there are several things to consider. I believe strongly that clients should hire a specialist. The Family Law code is very specific, and practices vary by locality. You want an attorney who knows the law, the local customs, and the local judges. Look for an attorney who either practices Family Law exclusively, or one whose practice is limited to Family Law and up to one other related area. 

Where can you find a good attorney? A web search will return thousands of names in most large metro areas, and sifting through them all would be a monumental task. Instead, start by asking for referrals. If you have friends who have divorced, friends who are attorneys, or you work with other professionals like a therapist or financial advisor, ask for their best picks.

If you still find yourself without a name, a visit to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) website[1] can be a good jumping-off point. AAML is an industry group dedicated to promoting professionalism and excellence in the practice of family law. You may also search the directory for the Family Law Section of your local Bar Association.[2]

The Therapist

Whether you initiated the divorce or not, you are bound to have some strong emotions. Some clients are tempted to press their attorney (or even their friends and family) into service as a therapist. That is often not productive — and it is far too costly to ask your attorney to be your therapist. Not every client needs a therapist; however, if anger, fear, resentment, grief, or other strong emotions are making it difficult to move through the divorce process, a therapist may be able to help.

If you don’t already have a mental health professional you like and trust, ask for referrals. Your new attorney likely knows a handful of therapists, as does your primary care physician. You might also ask for referrals from friends and family, especially if they’ve recently divorced. Employee assistance programs often offer referrals to local mental health professionals for employees and their spouses.

The Investment & Planning Expert

Do you need an investment or planning expert? If you are struggling to understand the financial implications of your divorce, confused about the assets you and your spouse own, or worrying about your long-term financial health, then an investment or planning expert may be able to help.

What sort of expert do you need? The world is full of an alphabet soup of financial professionals, including CPAs, CFAs, CFPs, CDFAs, CRPCs, and CPWAs just to name a few. Which to choose?

If your concerns are investment and planning related, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER Professional™ (CFP®) can be a good choice. CFP Professionals are trained in Financial Planning, Insurance, Tax, and Investments — all of which may be elements of your case. One caution: not every CFP Professional is trained to handle divorce, and you may find they do not have a strong knowledge of family law, or are not equipped to deal with the strong emotions a divorce can bring up.

An alternative is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst™ (CDFA®). A CDFA Professional is trained in the fundamentals, financial issues, and tax issues of divorce. By becoming a CDFA Professional, these individuals have demonstrated a dedication to working specifically in the family law arena and are likely to have valuable experience they can bring to bear in your case. An expert who is both a CFP Professional and a CDFA Professional is ideal.

Your attorney should be able to refer you to the appropriate person. If you are interested specifically in a CFP Professional, visit the CFP Board website for a local directory.[3] You can find a CDFA Professional in a similar manner by visiting the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts site.[4]

The Tax Expert

As with investment and planning experts, not every case needs a tax expert. In some cases where the tax questions are relatively simple, a CFP Professional or CDFA Professional is a suitable choice. A CFP or CDFA can assist with a tax impact analysis[5] to help you understand how certain assets are likely to be taxed.

However, highly complex tax issues should be addressed by a dedicated tax professional like a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). These issues might include:

  • Determining the best filing status for the current year (assuming you are not divorced by year-end)
  • Determining who can benefit most by claiming children as dependents on their return
  • Assessing the impact of things like alimony and home mortgage interest on your potential tax liability
  • Assisting in determining how much to withhold from income in your first post-divorce tax year

As with an investment or planning professional, your attorney should be able to provide you a few good names.

The Other Experts

Depending on the specific elements of your case, there are a handful of other experts you might find useful. Either your attorney or one of your financial experts should be able to refer you to someone they trust.

In a case where questions exist about the value of the family home or other real estate, the services of a good Real Estate Appraiser may be helpful. In that same vein, if selling the family home is part of your settlement agreement, having a good Real Estate Agent is also important.

If you or your soon-to-be-ex-spouse owns a business, it will need to be valued for the purposes of a settlement agreement. Valuing a business is a very specialized task, and only a qualified business valuation expert should be used. A good valuation specialist can also assist in structuring the transaction to buy out a non-owner spouse if such a transaction is needed. If a business is in play, or if you suspect fraud or wasting of assets, a Certified Forensic Accountant may be an important person on your team. A Certified Forensic Accountant can also assist in tracing the community and non-community portions of employer retirement plans or other financial assets.

Though very few cases require one, there may be a place for a Private Investigator on your team. Only spend money on this if you and your attorney judge that any evidence uncovered will likely lead to a better settlement outcome. Rely heavily on your attorney’s advice here.

In some cases, you may be awarded assets from your ex-spouse’s employer retirement plan. Those assets can only be divided and moved using a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). In some cases your attorney may prepare this document themselves; in other cases they may use a QDRO specialist. It can be cheaper to use a third party than to pay your attorney’s hourly fee for them to draft a QDRO. Again, rely on your attorney’s advice to determine if such a provider is needed.

Why Use a Team?

The foregoing list of professionals may look intimidating and sound expensive. But most of us would agree that using the right tool(s) for any job helps do the job right the first time and in less time. Taking a team approach often delivers a better result with less time, money, and difficulty. Knowing who to include on your team will take some wisdom. Your attorney is a key person, and you should rely on their advice regarding when to bring in another team member.

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[2] The specifics of how to select your attorney are beyond the scope of this article.

[5] A tax impact analysis can provide insight into the post-tax value of a given asset in either your hands or the hands of your soon-to-be-ex-spouse.

This article was updated August 2019