Jan L. Warner & Jan Collins
Question: My husband and I have decided to call it quits after 32 years. Our children are grown, married, and have children of their own. My husband is a retired chief operating officer of a large company, has stock options, a 401k, pension, etc. I have a flower and decorating shop (corporation) and we both own stock. We have each contacted lawyers and have gotten fee estimates of upwards of $50,000 each. We know what we have. Isn’t there an easier and less expensive way to go our separate ways?
Answer: While we are not advocates of mediation in every case, situations like yours seem to cry out for it. The question becomes: Who should be appointed as the “neutral” to help us settle the economic issues of our case?
We believe that in situations like yours where there are complicated valuation and division issues, a qualified certified public accountant may be a wise choice. This does not mean that each of you doesn’t need a matrimonial lawyer. It does mean, however, that the lawyer’s job description changes and the cost of services should be reduced.
Traditionally, for example, when one or both of the spouses owns a business, a professional practice, stock options, and qualified retirement funds, two lawyers -- each using valuation and tax experts -- will, after months of haggling, present their positions to a family court judge. In addition to the duplicative expense, since each expert will probably present an entirely different opinion of value, a disinterested judge will decide which expert to believe, and you lose control of your economic future.
Today, more and more certified public accountants can be engaged as mediators. As a professional, the certified public accountant understands the roles of the attorneys. As a mediator, the accountant assists the lawyers in preparing a plan that can accomplish a fair and equitable economic solution to the dispute.
The mediation process may involve joint meetings and individual conferences as well as communication with each attorney. Where necessary, the mediator helps collect and collate the economic picture of the marriage – generally at a lower cost.
One of the beauties of using a certified public accountant as mediator is that, in a comparatively short period of time, the economic picture of the marriage will be put in place so that, should a settlement not be reached, and since the economic case has already been prepared, the lawyers can take over and litigate all or a part of the case in a shorter period of time and at less cost. And since the mediation process is not binding until an agreement is signed, failed mediation results cannot be used in subsequent court proceedings.
Bottom Line: If your matrimonial situation involves retirement, a family business or other economic issues that could take months or years to resolve in the court system – or which can’t be handled in the court setting (like concurrent estate planning, business succession issues, etc.), we believe that mediation through a certified public accountant has merit. Again, this does not mean that each of you doesn’t need a lawyer, but it does mean that you may be able to save some time and money. Contact the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants website or your state CPA organization to find out more.