Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
The most important decisions you can make, during the divorce process is, choosing a good attorney, and having a good attorney work for you and on behalf of you. One of the main questions I get with a lot of people is, is my attorney doing a good job? I have the fortune of working with attorneys, family law attorneys, seven days a week. I can tell you which attorneys are good and which are less good. Actually, even from time to time on the coaching calls, I will make a recommendation for an attorney if you happen to live in a city where I know an attorney, who is a good one. But that happens only on the coaching calls.
If you don't have a good attorney yet and you're looking for one, I'm going to record an episode on how to choose ... another episode on how to choose an attorney. I already have lots in the archives. But I can also help, sometimes, on coaching calls, help you figure out, hey, who are the best two or three attorneys near you that can help you through your divorce process.
But the subject of today's episode is for all of you who already have attorneys, are they doing a good job for you? What I want to go through is I want to give basically four characteristics that pretty much every great law firm, in general, but particularly during the divorce process, has when it comes to an attorney ... and providing a good service. I want to go through these four things that you should be looking out for, and asking yourself if they apply to your attorney and to your case. If they don't, you need to think hard about what the best way is to proceed for you.
So, here are the four things. The first is your attorney advocates on your behalf and creates a good game plan for your case. The second is that they provide responsive customer service. The third is that there are no surprise bills that come due for you. And the fourth is they help you through the case closing process. I'm going to jump in and discuss each one of these four things in a little bit more depth.
Let's start with part one, is that your attorney advocates for you and executes a clear game plan for your case. Well, what does that mean? Well, I think 100% of the people that are listening to this want ... if you have an attorney, you want your attorney to be in your corner. Simple as that. And a lot of times, you will say, "Hey, I don't think ... " and here's the phrase that I hear far more often than I should is they say, "I don't think that my attorney is fighting for me." And that's unacceptable. When you pick an attorney, you're hiring that person, you're paying them a lot of money, and you want them to feel like or that they're fighting for your best interest, and getting what you deserve as part of this process. You want your attorney to set you up in the best position possible for your future.
Sometimes ... you know, I say all the time, your state laws vary and what your attorney can and can't do, in certain situations, can be very different, depending upon your individual circumstances, what's going on in your case, what the law says, et cetera, the particular dynamics. But, one of the most frustrating things I hear is you'll say, "Hey, I brought this up to my attorney, and they ignored me." Or they said, "It won't work," but didn't explain why. Or they said, "Well, I should just do this." And you don't want your attorney ... it's okay if you suggest something that might be outside of the course of the law, or maybe incorrect, but you want your attorney to at least understand your position on certain items, and make sure that even if you are presenting something that might not be logical or might not be in your best interest, that your attorney sits down and explains, "Hey, John ... Hey, Jane, here's ... I understand your concern. I understand what you're getting at, but here's why the law says otherwise." Or, "This is what the judge says." Or, "Here's why I don't think that's the best example in your case and here's a better solution for you." You always want that person to be advocating for you and on your behalf.
The other thing that's very important as part of this advocate process, is you want your attorney to have a clear game plan for you. One question I ask ... or I encourage you to ask every attorney in every initial consultation, or even if you've already hired that person, you should say, "Hey," ... this is a very important question. You should write this down. "Given what you know about my case, what do you think are the range of outcomes that I could be looking at?" And what does that mean? I'll say it again.
I'll say the question again, then I'll get to what I'm getting at. "Given the circumstances, and the facts of my case that you know now, what do you think are the likely range of outcomes, based on your experience?" And here's what we are going for. The question is, is your attorney should be able to say, "Hey, based on the facts of the case, you'll probably get about ... between 40% and 60% of these assets. The exact split may be a little bit different. I think your child support will come in around this amount. Your spousal support will come in around this amount. Here's probably how the custody will work itself out. And ultimately, here's what the court will likely say, if we were to go in front of a judge. And so, the goal is, is given this information, I think this is how we should proceed through the case and negotiate and get what you deserve." I think this is the best option.
If your attorney doesn't explain something like that to you, then that's a real problem. You should have a very good sense of what your game plan is, at all times throughout your case. Now, the game plan doesn't have to be fixed, but you should know, from the very first appointment, what that overall strategy looks like. That strategy certainly changes as the dynamics on the ground change, and certain tactics pop up, and whatever else. But, if your attorney doesn't have a clear game plan for you, then that can be problematic. Sometimes, the game plan is we're just going to have to go to court to deal with some of these issues because the spouse is being unresponsive. Other times, the game plan is ... actually, sometimes the game plan is ... and I have this with a lot of people that I work with ... is, I don't know what the game plan is quite yet. Here's what I know, is we know that there's these assets thus far. We need to get more information. So, the game plan for now is we're going to subpoena, or request, a bunch of additional information, and once we have that information, we will have a much clearer picture of what we should be asking for, and I can update you with more then.
There could be other game plans in between, that are very specific, that say, "Hey, here's what the state laws are. This case is pretty clear cut. This is what we should get to, and ask for, and as long as everyone's reasonable, this is what you should probably end with at the end of this process." Your attorney should have some form of an answer for that question. They should be, at every step of the way, helping you get to that position. So, that's enough on number one, which is advocating and executing a clear game plan for your case.
The second thing is providing responsive customer service. What do I mean by that? Responsive customer service really just boils down to some very simple things that bad attorneys don't do. Very simple, is they should be returning your phone calls and messages within a timely fashion. I usually say within 24 hours. Even if it's to say, "Hey, I need some more time to look into this." But, I know ... and I hear from you ... attorneys that do not reply to you for a week or two at a time. That is unacceptable under any circumstance. For most of the people I work with closely ... and I try and practice what I preach ... you'll hear from me within the hour, or certainly within the day. If something's urgent that comes up, you call me immediately and I'll try and stop whatever I'm doing to help you, if I can.
Your attorneys should be doing the same thing. We're all busy, all trying to help you, but if you have a question, and you say, "Hey, here's my list of questions," they should be able to say, "Hey, let's schedule some time later this week to talk about it," or they should reply to that email, or they should have an assistant say, "Hey, these are the things that you should ... that we'll get back to you with some answers soon."
The other thing they should be doing is they need to be keeping you updated with deadlines. The legal process is filled with deadlines. Courts or documents that you need to submit to the court, or depositions, or requests for information, or any number of things that you should be thinking about, you need to be keeping track of those and keep updated with those items as things go along.
And the worst thing that can happen is ... actually is ... I hear this from time to time, is there's attorneys out there that won't tell their clients that there's a big deadline coming up. Or, they'll tell you the day before. So, I'll have a client say ... we'll be speaking on a Wednesday, and then on Thursday, they get an email that says, "Hey, on Friday, we have a big court date." And that is unacceptable. You need to know ... these things are scheduled, oftentimes, months in advance, and you should know months in advance, or weeks in advance, or as soon as possible, what deadlines you need to mark on your calendar and be prepared for.
And the other thing, when it comes to responsive customer service, is just keeping you informed on what's going on. Now, unfortunately, the divorce process isn't just a continual step-by-step thing, in most cases, and there's often gaps of weeks, sometimes even months, between things that happen. That's okay. But, you need to know what's going on. One of the best attorneys that I know in the country, that I work with, who's based in Florida, in Orlando, he does this cool thing. At the end of each month, he goes through every case that he has open, and he sends a short video, two minute video that he records at his computer screen, and says, "Hey, John, just want to send you a monthly wrap-up. Here's what's going on in your case. We did X, Y, and Z, this month. Next month, here's what you should expect. Just wanted to make sure that you keep updated." Two minutes. That's all he sends, even if nothing's going on, but if something's happening, or whatever, he can just say ... just do a quick check in, just to know that he's still thinking about you and your situation. If there's a lot more going on in your case, then he'll record a longer video, but you always know where you stand, and you're always informed on what's going on.
Now, speaking of staying informed, we're going to switch to point number three, is that you don't get a surprise bill. This one is one of those shockers. I know attorneys who will rack up ... if this has not happened to you, I guarantee all of you know someone who this has happened to ... is you pay your retainer, and the retainer gets exhausted, and the attorney keeps working for you for a while. Next thing you know is you get a bill for $17,000, or $24,000, and no explanation happens. You're looking there, and you're like, what ... you're just dumbfounded. It's like, where did this bill come from?
I know a lot of attorneys who might lure you in with a, "Oh, we'll just pay a $5,000 retainer and we'll get working," but that $5,000 lasts a week and a half, and then they start asking you for a lot more money. And then I also know attorneys who say, "Hey, you're going to pay me $25,000 up front." Guess what though, there's not going to be a surprise bill. We're going to get this done for $25,000. It might take a week. It might take two years, but you know, there's nothing that ... there's not going to be any surprises. If it only takes a week, you're going to be happy, 'cause you know that the exposure wasn't ... you know, you paid $25,000 for a fast week, but if it takes longer than that, you already know that things are good. But, in any case, they communicate very clearly the cost of what is going on, and you're never in shock when you receive a bill.
Doesn't mean that this process going to be cheap. I was having dinner with an attorney I work closely with, a few weeks ago. And she told me that she has a client that has a very complex custody battle, that was over a million dollars in legal fees. So, it's not necessarily going to be cheap, and hopefully you're not going to spend a million dollars in legal fees, but sometimes it is necessary. But, there were no surprises and believe it or not, this person who spent a million dollars in legal fees is one of the happiest clients that can exist because they were able to get what they needed out of the divorce process. It was a long and complicated battle. There were no surprises. It was going to be expensive. But, it was what it was.
And while I think about billing, as well as the other thing that you should make sure you really understand, is how your attorney charges for billing. You should try and get a sense ... and it's okay if you have to ask this question after you've hired the attorney but, try and get a sense. Do they bill by the quarter hour? Do they bill every six minutes. How do they bill you if you send a quick email? Is that a 15 minute bill minimum charge? Or is it something else? You should figure out what that billing is, so you're not surprised down the line. 'Cause even a 15 minute conversation, for an attorney, who is $600 an hour, can cost you $150 for 15 minutes, which can be a lot of money. And that adds up. And so you want to make sure you maximize the time and the interactions with your attorney.
And finally, the last thing you should be thinking about, and what a good attorney will do for you, is help you out through the case closing process. This is very important, which is just because you sign a divorce decree, doesn't mean the divorce is over. I talked about this on previous episodes, very recent previous episodes. It can be very tempting to just put on the brakes and ... I wish you could see my hand motion, but pretend like your hands are clean, and you can move on.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. There's a lot of stuff that has to happen after the case is over, or at least after you've signed the divorce decree. And there's a lot of assets that have to move, custody schedules, support that has to be paid, et cetera, et cetera, that need to be documented and done. Every great attorney that I work with has a very specific case closing process, that is quite robust and substantial, and probably has 30 or 40 things on it. And they will help you still through that case closing process, and then make sure that all of the things that you were supposed to get as part of this process, actually happen. And if there is an issue ... and sometimes there are ... that you get those resolved, and so you're not stuck, years down the line, saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Wasn't I supposed to do this or that?" And I actually have some people that I do coaching sessions with, who will say, "Hey, three years ago, I signed this, but I never got this asset. What do I do?" And we have to walk through how to make sure we get those things done. But, the important part is, is all of these things can be resolved right after you sign the divorce decree, so you should be paying attention to that very closely.
So, four things for you to remember. That your attorney advocates and executes ... sorry, I should say advocates for you, and executes a clear game plan for your case. The second thing is that they provide responsive customer service. The third is there's no surprise bills that pop up as part of the divorce process. And fourth, is they help you when the case is closing.
Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.
In this episode, we're talking about a major tax change to alimony coming in December. And I wanna go through what's happening, what you need to know, and how you need to plan for it. And why this could apply to your divorce if you are thinking about getting divorced this year. So at the end of 2017, the Tax Cuts and Job Act passed. This was right at the very end of last year. And there were a lot of different tax changes that occurred to many people. This was one of the biggest tax bills that passed. But, there was a small provision in there that affects alimony. And this small provision can affect many of you in a big way. And so what happens is that certain tax benefits in divorce are being eliminated effective December 31st, 2018. And this is the biggest change in alimony in about 75 years or so. And many people have forgotten about it.
As it is today ... Or actually, I'm gonna tell you what's happening. What is going to happen is from a tax perspective, alimony is going to be treated exactly the same way that child support is. What does that mean? It means a person who pays alimony will not get any tax benefits for paying alimony. And the person who receives alimony will not have to claim that alimony as income starting next year. Now, that is what happens on January 1 of 2019. What happens today? Well, if you get divorced during 2018, there are some important things that happen from a tax perspective. If you are the person paying alimony, and I know many of my listeners are the ones who are going to be paying, then you get to deduct that money from your taxes each year. So, if your income ... And I'm gonna give you an example in just a moment. And conversely, if you are the person receiving alimony, you have to when you file your taxes each year say, "I've got X amount in alimony." And you have to pay taxes on that amount just like it is income.
Now, here's why this is a big deal. And I wish more people were talking about this. The big effect of this is that there is less incentive for someone to pay alimony. And I'm going to give you some examples so we can work with some easy to understand numbers. Let's say someone is going to be paying $10,000 or a little under $10,000 a month. But, we're gonna say $100,000 a year in alimony over a 12 month period. So over one year, they're going to be paying over $8,000 and some a month in alimony. I'm using $100,000 total just to make the numbers very simple. So, someone's paying $100,000 in alimony. That means that person can deduct from their taxes $100,000 in income. Which means they have a substantial tax savings on their income each year. 'Cause they don't have to pay taxes on $100,000 of their income. It's a simplified explanation. And the reason that's beneficial for them is when they are in a divorce situation, that gives them an incentive to pay some of that alimony instead of purpose structuring a settlement in a different way.
But, here's what happens starting January 1 of 2019. That same person who was paying $100,000 in alimony will not get that tax benefit anymore. And so, if they were going to think about what their divorce settlement looks like, that person does not get any tax benefit for paying that $100,000 a year. And now this is only if ... And I should bring up a very important caveat. It depends on when your divorce decree is signed. If you sign your divorce decree this year, then you will still get the tax benefits if you are the person paying alimony.
And if you sign the divorce decree starting January 1 of 2019 or anytime beyond that is when the law changes. And the tax rules change. And so that same person who was paying $100,000, or who was willing to pay $100,000 a year in alimony, may no longer be willing to make that same commitment. Because they don't get any tax benefits for paying that alimony amount. Now, it could be depending upon who's listening. Some of you, we could be talking about $10,000 a year. Others of you, we could be talking about $100,000 a year or a million dollars a year. I have a wide range of listeners in terms of the incomes that you all have. But, regardless of your income, it will affect most of you in one way or another.
Now, here's the reason this is extra important. So, basically what happens is the person who would be paying alimony will at least try to pay less alimony in the future. The reason that's unfortunate is according to the census, 97 percent of the people receiving alimony are women. And so, that will disproportionately affect many of the people listening who are facing or who would in theory be getting alimony. Now, it doesn't mean you should panic. It doesn't mean that you're screwed, or you should get upset and worry, or whatever else. There are many ways around this issue and ways to still get to a good position. And I'll get into some of those. But, you should be aware that things are changing. And things are changing in a big way. And you need to be cognizant of the change.
And one of the things that's very important about this is timing. And this is why we're putting this episode now in August. Because there's only a few months left in the year. And so, if you are facing divorce and you're in a place where ... Maybe you're in the middle of divorce. Or you're in a position where you think you can get this wrapped up before the end of the year. Then this is something that you should consider, because it can help with the negotiating process. If you're already in the middle of the process, great. Now, if you haven't filed for divorce yet ... I'm never one to even endorse divorce, but this is one of those times where you need to decide and think hard. Is now the time to file divorce and get this process going? Because I think I may be better off given what's happening with the alimony rules.
And I'm gonna look at this from both side's perspective in a little bit greater detail so you really understand the consequences and what we're getting to. And the reason when you hear this episode this is particularly important is we're in August as I record this. Some of you maybe listening to this later down the line. But, many states have some version of a cooling off period when it comes to divorce. And what that means is is from the moment you file divorce to the soonest your divorce can be over, depending upon where you live, can be two or three months in some cases. Because that's what the state requires. So, some states will say, "All right. Well even if you agree to 100 percent of the issues in your divorce, it'll take you 90 days before we'll sign off on a divorce. Because that's what the law says." Or some states, it might be 60 days. Or other states, it may be 30 days. I actually have a blog post if you type in quickie divorce. There's only a handful of states where it actually can happen reasonably fast.
But, given that we're in August, some of you August, September, will be the last chance you have if you are in the position to take advantage of these issues. Now, if your divorce process is already commencing. Some of you, it's been going on for many months. Some of you many years. Well, you're actually okay. The real goal would be in your perspective, in most cases, will be to wrap it up before the end of the year to benefit from these ... before the tax law changes.
And why all of a sudden this big tax change? Why did this happen? Well, the simple answer is actually a lot of people were cheating on their taxes. Not saying a lot of you were. But, what happened was there was a multi billion dollar gap every year according to the IRS records of people who were paying for divorce ... Or I'm sorry. So, there was a multi billion dollar gap. So, billions of dollars people were reporting that they were paying in alimony. But, a lot of people weren't saying they were receiving alimony. And therefore, could hide or not have to pay taxes on that money. So the IRS said, as part of the tax bill, that we're gonna change the law. And so, no one's going to get a tax break. And therefore, no one can cheat on alimony.
And so, what I wanna do in this episode .... It's gonna be a little bit longer than the normal ones. But, I wanna go through the scenarios depending upon who you are. And just some things to think about. All of this is complicated. It just is. And it depends on your individual circumstances which decision is best for you. There's no universal right or wrong. Ultimately you should be consulting with maybe an accountant, maybe your attorney, maybe with me. And we can think through what makes the most sense for you if you have these options on the table.
So, I'm gonna start with the person who is paying alimony. If you were the person paying alimony, or will be paying alimony as part of the divorce process, or spousal support or maintenance. It just depending on what state you live in what they call it. It is in your best interest from a tax perspective to wrap up the divorce before the end of the year. Because every dollar you pay in alimony for now and forever in the future, barring some sort of major unexpected tax change, you get a tax benefit for paying alimony. Simple as that. You'll pay less in taxes at the end of each year if you pay alimony. I'll give you a very simple example. If you're paying $1,000 a month in alimony, you get at the end of the year $12,000 deduction in your taxes. Now, if you don't finalize your divorce until sometime in 2019 or beyond, you no longer get that benefit. So for most of the people who are paying alimony, this might be a good reason to start that process.
Now, if you're the person receiving alimony, or will be receiving alimony. I know that one of my most popular videos with many, many thousands of views is on stay-at-home moms and divorce advice for stay-at-home moms. Which is one of the most common populations that I work with and people I get to help. And now some of you, I know from talk to you, might be panicked at this point. But as I said before, don't panic. The situation's actually more complicated if you're the person receiving alimony. I'm going to go through a few scenarios. A few things and notes for you to think about.
Now, if you're negotiating ... Let's just give you an example. Let's say you're negotiating or thinking about getting about $2,000 a month in spousal support as part of the divorce settlement. And you think you're gonna get this down in 2018. But for whatever reason, your divorce isn't finalized this year. And you're gonna be looking at 2019. Well actually if you still get $2,000 a month in 2019, you're in a better position. Because you don't have to pay income tax on that $2,000 a month you would have received. You're better off than you were before. If you get that same amount in pure dollar terms. Hope that makes sense. So, if you get divorced in 2018 and you get $2,000 a month, what happens is you're gonna be paying on income tax on what's going to be $24,000 a year. But, if you were in theory to get the same $2,000 next year in 2019 or beyond, you don't have to pay income tax on that. And therefore, you get to keep all of it. That's a plus.
But, there's a downside. Let's say if you were thinking about or you were probably gonna get $2,000 a month in spousal support this year. Well if your spouse is savvy or your spouse has a decent attorney, they'll say, "Well, hey. I don't get that tax break anymore for it. And you're actually gonna get less. So, we're gonna make some adjustments in terms of what we pay. And maybe we're only going to pay you $1,500 a month instead of $2,000 a month." That could be substantial. Or whatever the equivalent is for them. But, that is something that will certainly happen in the divorce scenario for some people who understand the way that this calculation works.
Now as I always said, there is a way around it. There are always clever ways to structure your divorce settlement. And I speak with you almost everyday about certain avenues you might not have thought about. But, one of them is a lump sum distribution. I've talked about this on the podcast before. If you haven't gotten the archives, you should definitely check that out. There is the ability to get as much money up front. And therefore, you won't have the tax consequences at all. Or they'll be substantially reduced. And you can ultimately, now it's a tricky calculation, but you can ultimately get to the same place you would've gotten all at once instead of doing it over months and over years. Now, you have to go back and listen to the lump sum distribution podcast episode, which is in the store, to understand all the mechanics of that. But is a very good solution, one of several, that could work for you.
So tax law or not, depending on your situation, you could still end up in the exact same place you would have if you structure things the right way. Ultimately, this is a complicated issue. I just wanna bring it up and make you aware of it. There's state laws you have to deal with. There's tax laws you're gonna have to deal with. There's just the divorce process you're gonna have to deal with. Certain states are considering different measures to counteract these changes.
And ultimately, if I were to say anything, you need to bring these up with your attorney. Bring these up with me. Bring these up with your accountant. If you don't have an accountant, this would be a good time to pay for a one off consultation with an accountant. It's interesting. Definitely bring it up with whoever you are working with. I know some very expensive and otherwise very good attorneys who have not said a word about this. Or who were less informed. Or have not brought it up with their clients. It's not because they are bad attorneys. They just have other things going on. One of the things you need to do is bring it up and take charge yourself.
I also know some great attorneys who have called all their clients and are saying, "Hey, here's what we're doing. Here's what we're thinking about. Here's the tax law change. Here's how it could affect you. Here's how I recommend we proceed to either get this done or delay it." It really just depends on your individual case. But, one way or another if you have not had this conversation with your attorney, I strongly suggest that you have it. And also, feel free to reach out to me. Book a coaching call and we can walk through your scenario in a half hour or so. And get the important details with you.
Just some last messages. I wanna reiterate multiple times during this episode, is it's not the end of the world if you don't wrap things up this year. And for some of you, it's just not going to be feasible to wrap up your divorce this year. You might not have started in the process. Maybe you're still gathering information. Or any number. It's not right for your family, or for your life, or for any number of things. And you're still doing your research. It's okay. You will come out through the other side. I'll still be here next year. And we'll still be coming up with good solutions to help you. And interesting and useful information.
But, if you think there's a benefit for you and your scenario to get things done this year, this is a ... We're kind of at crunch time. And this is a good time to really start getting the ball rolling. And making the important solutions and decisions that you need to be making. So, you end up in the best place possible for the long term.