Sarah J. Hussey, CFP®, CDFA™, MAFF™
I spent a lot of time explaining why you must have an attorney. I can explain more quickly why you need a financial specialist as well.
Attorneys are experts in the law. But, even the best family-law attorneys are not experienced financial planners. Seasoned lawyers have an excellent sense of what is “fair” in the short term (or not fair), but very few also can look 5, 10 or 20 years out to determine if a settlement is “good” before advising their client to agree. This, specifically, is what financial planners do, particularly divorce financial specialists who are credentialed, experienced planners.
So, when making the decision that could have the biggest financial impact on the rest of your life, you want to consult an expert who can tell you, with professional authority, the short and long-term consequences of your financial settlement you may be considering or have been offered – and who will discuss this with you before you’ve said ‘yes’ to an agreement. This will be invaluable whether or not you and your spouse are cooperating during this process.
In addition, even the best attorneys do not always have the time or financial expertise to investigate the details of every asset or income source, when those details can have significant bearing on how the assets and income can be divided. As I keep saying, in most cases, you only have one chance to get your settlement right. Don’t allow any financial detail to be overlooked.
Specialist in the Finances of Divorce since 2003
Occasionally, I get calls along these lines: “My spouse and I want to agree on a settlement (or, ‘We already know what we want to do’) and we don’t want spend a lot of money (or, ‘any’) on attorneys. Can we meet with you to figure out how to divide what we have?”
If this is not you, and you’ve hired excellent counsel, congratulation. You can skip this section. But, if in any way this sounds like you (or your spouse), please read every word of it.
In the middle of a difficult and painful process, having to spend hard-earned (or diligently saved) money only seems to make it worse. Certainly, I understand the feeling of wanting to spend as little as possible to get a divorce, especially on those blasted attorneys “who just want to run up a bill”.
But, you need to accept that divorce is a legal process, as well as a financial and emotional one. Most people going through divorce have never encountered the legal system before. This is not the time to learn it by experimentation. Even those who do know it well – even, for example, an attorney going through her own divorce - have clouded judgment during this time regarding their own situation, and should seek outside, objective counsel.
Consulting a qualified, experienced family-law attorney is so important that I require all clients to retain one, or at least have on board as a consultant, before I will proceed with my work for them. This is true whether I am consulted by one party, to work on her/his behalf, or by a couple as a financial neutral. I can refer you to qualified attorneys in your area, if needed. Couples must each consult with a separate attorney.
There are three things I want to share with you if you do not want to consult an attorney:
1. When you are getting a divorce, no matter how much the parties say (and may genuinely mean) they want the right thing for the other, the two people have diverging interests. It’s survival instinct: to some degree, every person wants to protect him- or herself during this process. Even the best-intentioned spouses have some conflicting needs and wants during divorce.
2. You have legal rights as a divorcing spouse. Unless you’ve been through this before (and in detail, and remember it all), it’s unlikely you know what those rights are. What you or your spouse read on a website, or what your brother did in his divorce, does not give you the authoritative answers on what your rights are in your specific case.
Only a licensed (and preferably, experienced family-law) attorney in your state who is consulting with one party alone can inform you of those rights and advise you accordingly. No other expert, including a mediator or financial expert in divorce, can inform you of those rights - even when we know what they are.To do so is called, “unauthorized practice of law”, and competent financial experts, mediators and therapists do not cross that line.
3. “We just want to use one attorney”. Frequently, I hear this after-the-fact from people bragging that they got divorced cheaply by only hiring one attorney. Far from indicating their wisdom, it proves their foolishness, because there is no such thing as the one-lawyer divorce.
By definition, an attorney, legally and ethically, must represent only the interest of one party in a conflict. There are two parties in a divorce. Any licensed and competent attorney fully explains this to the spouse who is sitting in his office. If your spouse meets with an attorney and then says to you, “Dear, my attorney said she’d be able to draw up everything for both of us; we just need to tell her what we want”, run (do not walk) to make an appointment with the best family-law attorney you can find. Either your spouse is lying, seriously misunderstood the attorney or has consulted a bad attorney. None of these possibilities is in your best interest.
And, there is an important fourth point:
4. Good family-law attorneys do not “run up a bill”. They don’t have to, because they have more than enough work. They want to professionally help you resolve this difficult issue and see you move on with your life. Weak or inexperienced attorneys, however, may seek to maximize the hours they bill because they do not have enough work. You want a good family-law attorney, not a weak one.
Notice that I keep saying, “good family-law attorney”, not “good attorney”. In any legal process you want an advocate who specializes in that area. Do not use the guy who settled your real-estate deals, wrote your will or got your teenager out of a DUI to handle your divorce. Outside of truly rural areas (perhaps fewer than 10,000 people) where a good attorney simply must do more than one thing well to stay in business, you can find at least a few experienced specialists in family law. Hire one.
Divorce cost money. Truly, I wish it were otherwise. But, in most cases you have one chance to get this right. Do not “economize” and cheat yourself out of excellent legal and financial advice.
I work on an hourly-fee basis of $245 per hour, including consultations. How many hours are required depends on too many factors to list here, but they include the complexity of financial resources (your family income and assets), the lifestyle lived during the marriage, the financial knowledge of the person(s) who contacted me and how contentious the financial issues of the divorce are between the parties. I have been able to help couples truly seeking to mediate find an agreement with five or six hours of work, and I have been in cases that went to trial, or extended negotiations ending just short of trial, that required close to two hundred hours. Therefore, it’s impossible to say, on a website like this, what the result you need or want will cost.
After your initial consultation, I can give you a better estimate of the time your case may require. Like an attorney, I require a retainer to cover the estimated hours involved (or the first phase of work if it’s expected to be a longer process). We discuss this in detail during the initial consultation.
Most of the time, I am hired or recommended by an attorney for one of the spouses. On occasion I am contacted first by a client who wants to meet with a financial specialist before seeking legal counsel, or by couples seeking to work out an agreement between themselves. Prior to your consultation I can give referrals to qualified attorneys in your area.
You will need to gather a list of financial documents for our first meeting, which I will provide to you. After the consultation, you will receive a more detailed list specific to your situation. Gathering these documents may be time-consuming and tedious, but it is imperative that you do so. Your financial records are the “meat” of your divorce case, and you will have to gather them for any financial or legal professional you hire.
When I am hired by your attorney, the attorney will tell me the “scope” of my assignment, which may include determining the family’s income, determining the standard of living the family enjoyed, valuing financial assets and assessing the long-term impact on one or both parties of different settlement options, to assess what potential settlement to seek. When working with clients directly, we determine what answers you need, and I can provide reports for you to take to your respective attorney(s).
Seattle and Everett (206) 963-1755
Bozeman (406) 587-5587
In the midst such pain and stress, you have to make decisions that will affect you significantly, and perhaps your children, for the rest of your life. No one, no matter how smart or knowledgeable, is her/his normal, rational and intelligent self during this process. This is a reason you need professional, unbiased advice when charting the path ahead.
In the beginning, most couples (particularly young ones) don’t really talk about money. But when a marriage ends, money IS the issue. In the stress of divorce, people protect what matters most to them; this may include the children, if they are still growing up, but it always involves protecting one’s financial resources.
In many divorces – especially those where the spouses have not and cannot earn similar incomes - the divorce settlement is the single greatest determiner of the quality of life, financially, for the rest of one’s life. This is particularly true for the “non-moneyed” spouse”: the one who had little or no earned income during the marriage, who may also have had little or no control over the family’s finances.
If you are divorcing after a long-term marriage, you usually have one chance to get your settlement right. Don’t sign an agreement until you understand the long-term consequences of what you’re agreeing to.