Family law matters can be very expansive in nature and they can also be extremely complex. As a result, to best serve our clients, we commonly enlist the expertise and guidance of some of the diverse range of professionals who are, or become part of, our “team”.
Remember that the field of “family law” includes areas of law that can run the gamut of life and family experiences. The larger areas of family law in which I practice include, but are certainly not limited to premarital agreements, reconciliation agreements, divorce and settlements (with all sub-issues), custody and parenting-time in non-dissolution matters (never married), domestic violence and DCP&P (formerly known as “dyfs”). Then there are all sorts of post-judgment (after the initial matter is concluded) matters that include modifications of prior agreements and addressing new situations as they arise.
The skills, knowledge and experience required to be an effective family law attorney can humble even those of us who have been practicing in this area for many years. Many of us take years to develop our abilities to settle the vast majority of client’s legal issues. It can take years to develop the skill to be an effective litigator, mediator, or arbitrator. But when it comes to specific knowledge in other professions, the basic knowledge we accumulate still requires that we call in and rely on experts in their fields. The following are examples of team members, many of them already working with our client in some capacity, that may be involved in family law litigation, and a few examples of how their expertise in used:
- Accountants: personal accountants to supply historical income information and calculate tax implications of settlement; independent forensic accountants to determine cash flow, business valuation, normalized income
- Forensic custody experts: evaluate custody, parenting time, skills of parents, dangers that may be presented to children
- Substance abuse experts: determine parental fitness, dangers to other spouse/partner (often in a domestic violence setting)
- Computer forensics: investigate records, hidden assets, movement of cryptocurrency
- Appraisers: residential real estate, commercial real estate, collections (art, coins, antiques, jewelry)
- Therapists, psychologists: protecting children, dealing with trauma of divorce (children and parties), serving as Parent Coordinator (guide parents through decision-making conflicts)
- Other attorneys: criminal law attorneys (often attached to domestic violence), estate law attorneys (often attached to premarital agreements and setting up trusts as part of marital settlements), tax law attorneys (planning out tax implications in asset division and addressing IRS problems), disability attorneys (one spouse is disabled)
- Vocational experts: to determine earning capacity of unemployed or underemployed spouse, or to assist client in re-entering job force
- Pension specialists: evaluate pension values and prepare forms to share government qualified pensions, retirement assets
- Wealth advisors: plan property division and financial needs
- Mortgage experts: refinancing the marital home or ability to purchase a new home
- Many others
As a family law attorney, it is important that I have working knowledge of these (and the many other) areas, but I also must know my limitations and when the true experts need to be brought in to help. Knowing the questions to ask and knowing when to call in an expert is often the key towards resolving difficult issues.
Sometimes the team member is already in place – such as the accountant for my client or her wealth advisor. Sometimes the team member is informally helping out – such as when I call one of my sources, ask pertinent questions and gain valuable guidance. Sometimes the team member requires formal retention and a report that is acceptable to a court – such as a custody evaluation or a business valuation.
The decision on coordinating my team, that will vary with every client, is akin to coaching a team. We must decide on the fit – how does the expert fit the client, the facts, even the judge? Where is expertise really needed and when is my experience and knowledge sufficient to address a subject (and save costs)?
These decisions apply whether I am litigating, mediating, or arbitrating. Sometimes experts are joint between the parties, to save costs and assure objectivity. Sometimes we need to retain our own expert for various reasons. Our team will hopefully bring the specific information that allows us to settle an issue; but if not, they narrow the issue and bring clarity.
My belief is that it is just as important to know what I do not know, and to bring in the people to help me help my client reach a final settlement. Even when I do not formally retain outside experts, they are there for me and for my client. These relationships and my always evolving “team” are often an unseen but critically important part of practicing in family law.