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Tracy Stewart
Tracy Stewart
Clearness in the Midst of Turmoil

Providing excellent services for clients in divorce takes more than technical competence and a tolerance for emotional moments.

September 17, 2009
by Tracy Stewart, CPA, PFS

Like most financial advisors, I serve my clients well when I help them move from where they are now, to where they want to be. Unlike most financial advisors, all my clients are coming from some form of turmoil. They are all getting a divorce. I am the calm in their storm.

One of the best ways to help divorcing clients is to keep them focused on their financial concerns and goals. During the initial phone call with a client who has chosen the litigation process, ask your clients to identify their three biggest concerns. These concerns don't have to be stated as financial matters. Ask them to define how they expect their life to be different after having worked with you. These thoughts and expectations provide you and your clients with a roadmap for your project.

What Keeps Your Clients Awake at Night?

At the first meeting, your clients will usually wander off target when describing those three things that keep them awake at night. Some vent frustration or anger. Let them do this once during your project, because it can help you understand their situation and attitudes. But in subsequent conversations, gently steer them away from their emotional detours. If necessary, explain that you want to keep your fees to a minimum, "so let's focus on the financial issues here." Clients react positively to that idea.

If the individual has not yet consulted with an attorney, keep a running list of legal and strategy questions for the yet-to-be-retained legal counsel. If there is an attorney already involved, you should work in tandem with that attorney. I look at the attorney as the quarterback, while I am a team member.

When couples have chosen the collaborative process, you are, of course, a team member. However, instead of one client, you have two clients. As the personal financial planning specialist, you are an unbiased neutral financial professional in collaborative divorce projects. In the collaborative setting, your neutrality is paramount. Couples can easily hire competent financial expertise, but getting truly neutral financial expertise is a bit more difficult. We all have biases. Many of those biases are so discretely woven into the fabric of our lives that we are not even aware they exist. We think they are common sense or practical intelligence. To serve my collaborative clients properly, I have to be able to recognize and detach those biases at all times throughout the project. By "at all times," I mean not only while I am working alone on analyses, financial reports, assumptions, projections, but also when I am communicating and meeting with the couple (independently or together) and with the other professional team members.

Serving Collaborative Couples

To effectively serve collaborative couples, when considering one individual's concerns, you must equally consider those of their partner. It is when each partner sees their concerns validated and their goals addressed that the collaborative divorce process and your services meet their hopes and, at times, exceed their expectations.

The collaborative process requires and thrives on open communication among the professional team as well as with the couple. To serve your clients best, you need to be diligent about this. There can be no inadvertent slip-up resulting in an attorney being unaware of some small detail. You can bet that that small detail had more importance than you anticipated, causing a bump in the road. Those bumps inevitably lead to the professionals spending some amount of time clearing up the misunderstanding, which causes avoidable professional fees at the expense of the clients.

In my practice, I emphasize my communication with the other neutral professional on the case — the communications specialist who is a licensed mental health professional. As neutrals, we can openly discuss problems and potential road bumps without concurrently involving the collaborative team attorneys. We use this method to streamline the progress of the case. For example, one individual had repeatedly promised to send me copies of account statements but never followed through. When I expressed my frustration to the communications specialist on the case, she explained this person was suffering from depression and that depression can cause people to avoid getting things done. To keep the process moving forward, the communications specialist stepped in to help the client get the statements to me so I could get my work done in time for the next step in the process.

Conclusion

Of course, underneath all of this is professional competence. Serving your clients properly includes knowing what you are doing. When your clients need expertise in a matter outside your own experience, it is your responsibility to help them locate a competent professional in that area. Just as I keep current in the technical areas in which I practice, I keep current with professionals who practice in other arenas. This includes CPAs of varied technical and professional niche practices, mental health professionals, child specialists, insurance advisors, real estate appraisers and more.

To serve your clients well in your niche practice of collaborative divorce, you need to excel in neutrality, open communications, technical competence and tact.

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Tracy B. Stewart, CPA, PFP, CFP, CDFA specializes in family law litigation support in Houston, TX. She helps clients protect their wealth during property settlement negotiations. She is a member of the AICPA Personal Financial Planning and the Forensic and Valuation Services sections. Stewart is a board trustee for the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas as well as on the Executive Board of Texas Society of CPAs. You can contact her through www.texasdivorcecpa.com.