As accountants or financial planners who are trusted advisors to your clients, there are some ways you can further help your clients and optimise their overall experience. For people who are going through separation and divorce, a good client-lawyer-advisor relationship can help expedite what can be a drawn-out process. To achieve that, first there must be good communication. When we meet new clients who have previously sought help from a lawyer but come to us for a second opinion, not infrequently we discover that the reasoning for this can be attributed to a breakdown in communications or a lack of communications between them.
As family lawyers sometimes we see a reluctance from certain clients to keep us adequately informed about what they are doing during the process of separation and divorce. Often times they are fearful of communicating regularly with their lawyer for fear of incurring additional fees. Other times people go away for periods of time without informing their lawyer or seek to help their situation by looking elsewhere for information.
For those that may decide to hold off finalising a settlement, there are potential risks. In some instances delaying actions such as finalising a property settlement can prove detrimental. For example, the asset pool upon separation might be significantly diminished by the time of financial settlement so delays can have significant effects on the bottom line for them.
If you become aware they wish to ‘pause’ the process, it is important for us to be aware of this. This is because we may be undertaking steps behind the scenes. Us not knowing what they are doing may be unhelpful. If you become aware your client is ‘pausing’ anything during the separation and divorce process, ask them if they have informed their lawyer of their decision and if not, impart the value of them communicating this.
Another example where we see some people stop updating their lawyer is when they choose to have direct negotiations with their former partner. This is where they typically make an offer of settlement directly, without discussing this with their lawyer, believing this will be helpful. If any offer has been made at any time, it is important for the family lawyer to know, as it may impact future decisions and negatively impact them if they compromise a previously stated position. It may also set expectations in their former spouse that are difficult to shift if they are ultimately unable to be met. If you become aware of this, encourage them to inform their family lawyer about their decision, even if it is a short-term decision or one-off instance. The implications of many actions outweigh the perceived benefit.
As trusted advisors to your clients, you are in a unique position where you have established the relationship of trust, long before we are given the privilege. A way to help your clients more comprehensively is through your conversations with your client and being mindful of their actions in relation to their separation or divorce. As you may well know, the process of separation and divorce can be nuanced and complex. Depending on how each step of the process unfolds, the time frame can become extended. This can be the catalyst for people taking steps that can prove unhelpful later in the process. Being alert to indicators from your client where they seem discouraged and advising them to speak to their lawyer to keep them updated about their concerns is how you can help us and ultimately, your client.
When we start working with people, we ask them for authority to speak to third-parties such as their accountants and financial advisors so we can communicate directly with them about issues and obtain information. If you have a client going through separation and divorce, if they have not done this already, suggest they take steps to authorise this free flow of information as it can assist at both ends.
Just as you as an accountant or financial advisor need to know details, however small or irrelevant they may seem, to provide the very best strategy and outcome for your clients, so too do we. When we are aware of each of the steps and actions our client has taken, then we are best positioned to help them most effectively.
When we learn later that a client has had direct discussions with their former partner, this can undo the work or progress that has been made and makes the optimal outcome for our mutual client harder to achieve.
For the client, when they keep us in the loop and update us on what they plan to say or do, we can provide advice on the best and worst-case scenarios of that decision. The people we assist are always in control of whether they proceed or stop at any point. They can elect to do what they wish but when they have the knowledge from a source that understands the complexities of family law, they can proceed with confidence in an informed way. Knowing what to say and what not to say, and why can make all the difference. The goal is always for them to be able to move forward without risk of making an error that may cost them down the line.
If they express concerns about the costs they will incur, remind them that the cost of trying to fix something later down the line will cost them more in the long-term.
In our experience, the most positive and timely of outcomes occur when a client communicates with us openly and regularly. This is the best way to avoid time delays, problem solve together, keeping with their needs and goals, and resolve their property settlement sooner. This ultimately allows them to move forward with their life.
If you as their trusted advisor discover they do wish to negotiate directly with their former partner, it is always in their best interests to discuss what they plan to say and do with their lawyer, so they can make sure they do not leave themselves compromised in the future. Your help in identifying any of these potential moments may mean the difference between a diminished financial future or an optimal one.