WASHINGTON — Deciding to end a marriage is never an easy decision, and once you and your spouse agree to call it quits, it triggers a series of other decisions that can have implications long after your divorce is final.
As a financial adviser and a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, I have seen the emotional and financial toll of divorce many times. I also know the difference a really good divorce attorney can make in the financial outcome of someone going through a divorce. Once the Divorce Settlement is finalized, it’s simply too late to go back and renegotiate better terms.
Given the expense and havoc that a divorce can wreak on a family, I generally recommend that couples who are separating in anticipation of divorce first attempt to work out an amicable agreement. This can be accomplished through a number of means including filing an uncontested divorce, hiring a mediator or following a collaborative divorce process. These are preferable to litigation since they save both time and money. However, there are situations where you may need to find an attorney to represent you. If that’s the case, then you should engage the best one that you can.
Advocate for yourself
Before I share my suggestions for finding a great divorce attorney, let me say that nothing will replace your involvement and engagement in this process. Too often, women leave key decisions to their attorneys, not fully realizing the financial ramifications until years and decades down the road. While your attorney is the expert, you need to be your own advocate by learning as much as you can about how your divorce will affect you, your children and your future finances.
A good way to “know what you don’t know” is to download our “Moving On Post-Divorce” checklist. This is a very comprehensive list of “To Do” items once your divorce is final. By using this as a starting point, you can ask your attorney what, if any, of these items may relate to you and your situation. It also could spark conversations of things you haven’t considered as you maneuver through this process.
Interview more than one attorney
When selecting a divorce attorney, interview two or three before making your final decision. While your friends or relatives may give you the name of a “good” attorney, you need to make sure the attorney and the firm are right for your particular situation. Come with a list of questions and weigh and compare the answers carefully before engaging someone.
Here are a few key questions to ask to help you make your decision:
Is the attorney compatible with you?
Daily or weekly contact with your divorce attorney is common, especially in the early stages of divorce negotiations. That’s why this question is at the top of my list. Most attorneys provide an initial consultation that is either complimentary or has a reduced rate. They typically won’t offer concrete advice, but rather will seek to understand your specific situation.
In this meeting, be aware of how you feel when talking to the attorney. At a minimum, ask and then observe the following:
• Do you feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of your situation?
• Are you satisfied with the answers to your questions?
• Does the attorney seem to understand your needs, or is a lot of explanation required?
• Is the attorney’s typical client engagement negotiating a settlement or going to court?
• What is the attorney’s primary way of communicating with clients (phone, email, meetings) and is that compatible with your preferred mode of communication?
Your comfort level with the relationship is very important because your attorney will be working with you for an extended period of time — often well beyond legally finalizing the divorce. We often see cases where additional litigation or discussions with your attorney are needed to execute the final Divorce Agreement.
It may take more time to finalize the separation of assets, especially if you and your spouse own complex investments, such as hedge funds, that are more difficult to liquidate, or when a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) must be drawn up and reviewed by a retirement plan administrator before splitting retirement accounts. These situations can take time and may require multiple conversations between attorneys.
I have unfortunately seen cases where an ex-spouse intentionally delayed separating the assets even after the divorce agreement was final. In one instance, my client could not get access to her money for months and her attorney did not advocate strongly enough for her to eliminate the unnecessary roadblocks. A good attorney will anticipate potential issues and work to avoid unsubstantiated delays.