The Evolving Role of the Divorce Financial Analyst in CollaborativeDivorce

August 2010
By Pauline H. Tesler


Part One of a Two-Part Article

During the early 1980s, divorce lawyers began experimenting with the use of financial planners as consultants and trial experts to enhance spousal support advocacy on behalf of the dependent spouse. Although some immediately recognized both the value of that resource in counseling fearful clients and the power of such expert testimony in persuading judges to make higher support awards, the idea did not catch on widely. For many years it remained a power tool used by a select few. Persuading family law specialists that some other professional might do a better job than they of marshalling financial evidence on the client’s behalf has remained a hard sell in some quarters — even in the realm of collaborative divorce practice, where interdisciplinary professional teams are becoming the norm.

Breaking Down Resistance

It’s not difficult to imagine why skillful lawyers might resist accepting the divorce financial analyst (also referred to as a divorce financial planner) as a valuable resource. Divorce lawyers practicing in an adversarial mode are masters at controlling the flow of information about financial resources — how much will be disclosed, when, how, and to whom. Information is a major strategic weapon in the battle, and good trial lawyers keep firm control over its deployment (within the limits of applicable law, of course).

The situation should be different in the collaborative law setting. Collaborative lawyers work in a client-centered, interest-based settlement model in which financial information is defined from the start as a shared resource and a basic tool for developing mutually advantageous settlement scenarios. In fact, failure to disclose all relevant financial information violates fundamental good-faith undertakings set forth in the written collaborative participation agreement. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for beginning collaborative lawyers to embrace interdisciplinary teamwork with mental health colleagues on the professional team more enthusiastically than they welcome the divorce financial analyst. Understanding why this is so begins with acknowledging that it takes time for collaborative lawyers to switch gears. In intermediate collaborative practice training sessions, divorce lawyers who have handled only a handful of collaborative cases often protest that gathering and analyzing financial evidence is a central part of how they do their job. Why, they ask, should their clients pay some other professional to do it?

The answer lies in the significant differences between how information is prepared and used when legal rights and entitlements are the sole focus and winning big is the goal, as compared with how information can be prepared and used when client-centered interest-based negotiations are the agreed method and settlement entirely outside the court system is the sole objective. Old habits based on maintaining tight control over disclosure of financial data so that it can be manipulated for maximum strategic advantage die hard. I have found, based on nearly 15 years of experience as a collaborative divorce trainer, that it takes as many as 25 or more successful cases before a lawyer masters the skills and techniques that reflect real competency in collaborative law, and substantially more than that before most lawyers leave entirely behind them the residual habits and attitudes of the adversarial advocate, replacing them with those of a client-centered conflict resolution professional.

The Divorce Financial Analyst’s Job

Over time, lawyers working in communities where trained professionals are available for interdisciplinary collaborative divorce teams generally do come to appreciate the enhanced quality of financial services that an experienced divorce financial analyst can provide. Indeed, when the collaborative divorce financial analyst becomes the organizing source for information on the collaborative divorce team, the early availability to both parties and their lawyers of reliable, comprehensive financial information vetted by an expert neutral source has transformative potential, both to facilitate smoother sailing in the negotiation process and to support generation of far more comprehensive and sophisticated options for settlements. Working from carefully developed income, expenses, asset, and debt schedules that both spouses understand and accept as valid and complete, the professional team can help couples consider long-term financial consequences to both parties resulting from any set of assumptions about asset and debt division or amount and duration of alimony.

With this kind of rich and nuanced information, it becomes apparent to both parties whether a proposed solution is or is not financially viable. It becomes obvious when a settlement option will cause substantial inequity or even hardship to a party. It no longer is necessary for a dependent spouse’s lawyer to argue with his client about the financial wisdom of remaining in a family residence that is unaffordable, because the spreadsheets and graphs about cash flow and net worth speak for themselves. Because the good-faith commitments that couples make when entering the collaborative process include a willingness to consider all reasonable goals of either party regardless of whether they could be achieved in court, this kind of accurate information about financial consequences of settlement options can become a catalyst for creative problem solving and even generosity. In short, when the divorce financial analyst is part of the collaborative team, financial information functions as a shared dynamic tool, not a unilateral weapon.

Because of this potentially powerful support for collaborative conflict resolution, it is not unusual in communities where integrated team collaborative divorce practice is well established for the divorce financial analyst’s participation on the professional team from the beginning of the case to form part of the protocols by which collaborative divorce lawyers and their professional colleagues do their work. (This is so in the San Francisco Bay area, San Diego, Los Angeles, the Hudson Valley, Atlanta, Vancouver, Minneapolis, and many other mature collaborative practice communities in the U.S. and Canada.)

The Importance of Communications and Teamwork

Collaborative lawyers and divorce financial analysts, working together on a collaborative team, can perform their respective tasks at a high professional standard only if they share a congruent understanding of the job description and ethical boundaries within which the divorce financial analyst will work. These understandings are developed and refined in the local collaborative practice group, and in many instances are incorporated into the practice group’s protocols. Those protocols evolve as collaborative lawyers do more case work with the divorce financial analyst and learn from experience how to coordinate their professional efforts more effectively. As they begin each new collaborative case together, collaborative lawyers and neutral divorce financial analysts learn the importance of taking time to clarify beforehand what tasks the financial analyst will (and will not) perform, and in what sequence. They should also clearly define how they will communicate with one another, what form the work product will take, and where the boundaries lie between the lawyer’s job description and the divorce financial analyst’s job description. These understandings can vary considerably from one case to another, depending on the clients’ needs and the collaborative lawyers’ preferences.

At one end of the spectrum, the collaborative lawyers may simply ask the neutral divorce financial analyst to gather the usual financial disclosure documents required in divorce practice, to organize them, and perhaps to prepare basic spreadsheets summarizing what they reveal. However, experienced collaborative lawyers generally ask divorce financial analysts to do far more than that. In Northern California, where I practice, it is now customary in a collaborative setting for the neutral financial consultant to:

  • Confer initially with both attorneys about scope of engagement, special needs and challenges of clients, timing issues, format and venue for presenting financial information;
  • Meet with the divorcing parties jointly and separately to understand how money and records have been managed and to explain forms that will be used for gathering documentation of income, expenses, assets, debts;
  • Confer with both collaborative lawyers about financial and disclosure concerns that emerge during meetings with clients;
  • Alert lawyers to missing documents and information and possible bad faith disclosures;
  • Help clients prepare and/or review budgets, as directed by lawyers;
  • Educate financially naïve parties about basic money management;
  • Confer with family and/or business accountants to gather tax returns and business records (it is not customary for the collaborative divorce financial analyst to undertake tracing or business valuation while at the same time functioning as the collaborative neutral on the case. Most collaborative lawyers prefer joint retention of a different neutral forensic accountant to perform those tasks so that the uniquely client-focused role of the collaborative financial neutral is not compromised by rendering expert opinions on issues that often carry emotional charge);
  • Prepare preliminary asset/debt spreadsheets, cash flow summaries and estimates along with indexed supporting documentation, in binders or on CD-Rom;
  • Attend "five-way" collaborative meetings to walk parties and their lawyers through an overview of family finances;
  • Update documentation and schedules periodically throughout negotiations and before completion of settlement agreements;
  • Prepare long-term financial projections of cash flow and net worth for various settlement scenarios as directed by lawyers;
  • Attend settlement meetings as requested to provide "real time" calculations of child and spousal support (alimony), taxes, and financial consequences of settlement scenarios under consideration;
  • Meet individually with one or both clients as directed by lawyers when specific financial issues or concerns will benefit from individualized attention;
  • Prepare exhibits for inclusion in settlement agreements; and
  • Assist with collaborative modification of support agreements post-judgment.

Pauline H. Tesler is a family law specialist certified by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization, and a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. She co-founded the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and served as its first president. In addition to training and speaking on the subject, Ms. Tesler has written extensively on collaborative law and interdisciplinary team collaborative divorce.

 

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The Practice Group and the Financial Collaborative Divorce

September 2010
By Pauline H. Tesler


Part Two of a Two-Part Article

It is important to understand that working with a divorce financial analyst in the collaborative divorce setting requires all professionals involved in the case to develop trust relationships and teamwork skills that have no place in a divorce lawyer’s ordinary practice. The locus for developing these relationships and skills is the practice group. Practice groups are spontaneous organizations of collaborative lawyers, financial professionals and mental health professionals who work in the same geographic region and expect to work together on cases. (In some communities, members will sign formal collaborative participation agreements only with other professionals who are actively involved as members in the local practice group.) In the practice group, trust relationships are built, documents and protocols for practice are devised and kept updated, professional development activities are sponsored, and public education campaigns are implemented. Practice groups can be found everywhere that collaborative divorce practice is found.

The practice group helps lawyers and divorce financial analysts to avoid common pitfalls associated with lack of definition or inconsistent assumptions about how the work will proceed. Each completed collaborative team case provides a wealth of knowledge about what worked well and what did not — information that can be shared in the practice group not only among the lawyers and divorce financial analyst who worked on that case, but with the larger community of colleagues who will work together on other cases in the future. A smoothly functioning interdisciplinary collaborative practice group can facilitate case debriefing that enhances members’ shared understanding of the groundwork required for lawyers and divorce financial analysts to function as a smooth professional team on collaborative cases.

Setting the Parameters

What kinds of understandings between collaborative team members can the practice group help to outline? Following are several rules of thumb I have seen developed, which can be elaborated in detailed protocols and roadmaps to guide effective collaborative teamwork between lawyers and the divorce financial analyst.

  • Lawyers and divorce financial analysts should clarify at the start of each case exactly what the financial neutral’s work will consist of — the "scope of the engagement."
  • The divorce financial analyst should take instructions only from the collaborative lawyers. Requests for other services from the clients should be approved by both lawyers before the divorce financial analyst proceeds. For instance, clients may ask the divorce financial analyst to prepare guideline child support calculations. It is a "best practice" for collaborative lawyers to plan carefully when and how such support calculations will be used in the negotiations, and they will not appreciate having their process management undermined inadvertently by the divorce financial analyst.
  • Some lawyers expect only spreadsheets from the divorce financial analyst, while others expect indexed supporting documents that will be updated regularly. Increasingly, lawyers request that the work product be scanned and provided in CD-ROM or other digital format rather than in bulky paper files.
  • Clients often like working with the divorce financial analyst — sometimes more than with their own lawyers. They may try to get the divorce financial analyst to mediate issues, or give advice, or otherwise blur the boundaries of the job description. They may complain about their lawyers or coaches to the divorce financial analyst, who — as the only member of the professional team that deals with "just the facts," taking no direct role in facilitating decisions — may feel like a safe harbor when divorce-related stresses rise. The lawyers and divorce financial analyst should have a clear understanding of how such challenges will be handled, before they arise.
  • Preparation of budgets can be a loaded process, triggering client anxiety and anger. Lawyers generally want considerable advance input into how these budgets will be prepared, when, and for what purposes. Attorneys do not appreciate disclosure of one party’s budget to the other party unless and until they have prepared the clients for constructive lawyer-facilitated discussion. Ordinarily, the divorce financial analyst should send draft budgets to counsel for review and discussion rather than sharing them directly with the other party.
  • Long-term cash flow and net worth schedules are valuable tools for creative interest-based settlements, but only as part of a carefully structured roadmap for negotiations. These schedules should be prepared only when the lawyers ask for them. The assumptions to be modeled in various settlement scenarios should be approved by both lawyers, and the divorce financial analyst should not share these scenarios with clients except as directed by the lawyers, so that they serve only constructive purposes in the negotiations.

Conclusion

Early and ongoing involvement of a skilled divorce financial analyst on the collaborative team can improve both the process and outcome in ways that no individual divorce lawyer, however skillful, can duplicate. When a collaboratively trained divorce financial analyst works directly with both clients from the start of a collaborative divorce, the resulting financial disclosure process is more efficient, thorough, cost effective and comprehensible for all parties. The collaborative divorce financial analyst has access to full and complete disclosure from both parties, supported by full and complete documentation on request. It is expected that all financial questions will be answered before negotiations begin. Over the past decade, sophisticated divorce financial software has become available that organizes and presents family financial information in a far more nuanced and sophisticated manner than most lawyers have the skills to accomplish.

Delivery of integrated interdisciplinary professional services on collaborative divorce teams is a young, complex, and evolving art. That it benefits clients and their children is beyond doubt. With a divorce financial analyst on the team, it becomes possible for collaborative lawyers to facilitate creative and financially sound settlement agreements that can meet clients’ needs at a level of sophistication beyond the expertise of most divorce lawyers.

Throughout this two-part article, I have focused on the teamwork between collaborative lawyers and the divorce financial analyst. In fact, the team usually also involves two specially trained mental health professionals working as coaches with the parties, and often a collaborative child specialist who is the voice of, and to, the children as well as the source of important developmental information used in working out parenting plans. The professional collaboration across these three disciplines enables divorcing couples with a mind to do so achieve very high-quality, durable settlements. However, discussion of the ways in which the divorce financial analyst works with the coaches and child specialists on the team is beyond the scope of this article.


Pauline H. Tesler, J.D., CFLS, is a family law specialist certified by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization, and a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. She co-founded the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and served as its first president. In addition to training and speaking on the subject, Ms. Tesler has written extensively on collaborative law and interdisciplinary team collaborative divorce. Her publications include Collaborative Law: Achieving Effective Resolution Without Litigation, 2nd Ed.(American Bar Association, 2008) and Collaborative Divorce: The Revolutionary New Way to Restructure Your Family, Resolve Legal Issues, and Move on with Your Life (HarperCollins, 2007).

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