Whether you are making the choice to consider separation or divorce, or your spouse has made that decision and you are scrambling to make sense of it all, making the most of your initial divorce consultation with a divorce attorney is vital. Initial consultations are called initial consultations for a reason: you only get one. Some firms will offer free initial consultations, and others will charge a lower flat fee than an attorney’s typical hourly rate. As such, you are getting either free or discounted legal advice one time and should take advantage of that.
First and foremost, choose local counsel who is experienced in family law. Don’t call your father’s business attorney, your best friend’s bankruptcy lawyer, or your hairdresser’s personal injury guy. Family law cases are often decided on specific nuances that exist only in your case, and often cases are presented with local judges’ preferences, unwritten local rules, and consideration of the temperament of opposing counsel in mind. So, local counsel is a must. Experienced family law lawyers are easy to investigate, and ones who come with personal recommendations from prior clients are always the best option. There are many marketing tools that attorneys can use to hold themselves out to the community as experts in certain fields of practice, and some who assert they are rated “super-lawyers,” “best in their field,” etc. While those lawyers may, in fact, be “super-lawyers” and “best in their field,” those rating systems are not necessarily indicative of an attorney’s experience level, expertise or reputations, but may be purchased marketing items. Going with a locally known, respected, and personally recommended attorney is always best.
Once you’ve chosen the right attorney for you, you need to prepare for your initial consultation. Take some time to think about what you are most concerned about in your divorce matter, what questions do you want to be answered, and what information do you want to leave the consultation with that will put your mind at ease and give you a road map moving forward. Of course, a written list of questions is always best. Most initial consultations will provide you with a significant amount of information, and you may forget questions that you want to have answered.
A divorce attorney is best able to give you recommendations, answer your questions, and suggest a strategy if certain documentation can be provided at or soon after the initial consultation. While attorneys are not able to delve through hundreds of pages of documents during an initial consultation, certain information is vital to a productive initial consultation. Additional information provided at the initial consultation can be reviewed more quickly and inexpensively if it is provided at the outset, as opposed to long after the initial consultation, especially if it is provided piecemeal, or if it has to be provided through the Discovery process (more on the family law discovery process in future blog posts).
For my initial consultations, I request that potential clients bring the following documents:
- Tax Returns. Three years if no business is involved and five if a business is involved. Tax returns should include all pages, all schedules, and all supporting documentation, including but not limited to, W-2s and 1099s.
- A current pay stub for each spouse, and if a spouse is self-employed a QuickBooks printout, or something similar to that, which shows year to date income and expenses.
- Verification of health insurance costs and daycare expenses.
- Real Estate. Any appraisals of marital real estate, and if none, a general understanding of the value of the marital residence or other real estate owned, and a current mortgage statement for any mortgages or other liens against the real estate. Clients should know their monthly mortgage payment/s, as well as the taxes and insurance they pay for their real estate.
- The year, make, model, and current mileage of any marital vehicles; the current payoff for any liens against the marital vehicles and the monthly payment for the same. In addition to vehicles, if parties have what I would refer to as “toys,” such as boats, jet skis, motorcycles, four-wheelers, etc., similar information should be provided.
- Bank Statements. Statements for all individually titled and jointly titled bank accounts for the six months prior to the appointment, or if the parties are already separated for the six months prior to their separation.
- Investment Accounts. Current, and if separated, date of separation, statements for all private investment accounts, including Money Markets, Mutual Funds, Certificates of Deposit, IRAs, Roth IRAs, stocks, bonds, etc.
- Current, and if the parties are separated, date of separation, statements for all retirement accounts through employment including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, SEPs, PSERS accounts, SERS accounts, and the like.
- Information on all life insurance policies, including whether the insurance is whole life or term or some combination of the two, the owner of the policy, the beneficiaries of the policy, and the premiums paid for the policy.
- Personal Property. A list of all valuable personal property, including things like art, antiques, guns, collectibles, jewelry, etc., and appraisals or the client’s opinion of the value of the same.
- A list of all debt, in addition to any mortgages or car loans noted above, including personal loans, student loans, credit card debt, etc. Include statements for each of these debts for the six months prior to the consultation, or if the parties are separated, for the six months prior to their separation.
Often, clients are blindsided by a separation and the possibility of a divorce and are not in a place mentally or even emotionally where they can prepare themselves for an initial consultation as I have suggested. Even if that is the case, an initial consultation can be extremely helpful nonetheless by answering your questions, dispelling myths about divorce and generally reassuring the client that they will be taken care of throughout the process.