Doreen Gardner Brown, BHEc, CFP, AFC
Fee-only financial planner
Gardner Brown Consulting Inc.
Years in the business: 20
I’ve been doing collaborative practice since 2002. It’s an alternative to how couples divorce. I’m attracted to collaborative practice because I can see it is a better process for divorcing couples to continue to manage parenting in an effective way. I haven’t had anyone say to me collaborative isn’t a good idea; it’s usually the reverse. Collaborative practice works for me because I’m accustomed to doing the short-term assignments. I’m happy doing five cases a year because I primarily do financial counselling for employee assistance program (EAP) companies.
How collaborative practice works
The participation agreement is the essential piece for couples doing collaboration. The couple needs to agree to resolve the property sharing, and support for children and each other. So it’s a promise to each other to sit at the table, be transparent about all property income and come to an agreement on how that will be shared without going to court.
All of my collaborative work is done on a one-off basis. Most of the clients are referred by lawyers, psychologists, counsellors and financial planners in my network. I play the role of the neutral so I’m not aligned with either divorcing clients. If one person calls me and says, ‘I’m thinking of getting a divorce, I’d like you to work with me,’ I explain the collaborative litigation process, encourage that client to hire a lawyer and not have much more communication with me. If I’m going to be effective as that neutral, I can’t be aligned with just one client.
It’s usually a group of five: the clients, the lawyers and me. We look at the assets the family has and what the family has decided they want to have happen. We look at how we might provide support and divide assets. I take both people’s current incomes and investments, put them into a model and do a forecast so each of them would know what their position would be over time.
For example, one person may have a pension, and she may not know what kind of pension it is so I would explain it and then help both clients to interpret the actuarial review. So they will know exactly what the asset is and how it could come to them or if it didn’t come to them, how it might balance some other asset the family has.
For the most part, there will be a change in the clients’ standard of living, but with the projections I can show what that relative standard of living is going to be. That creates a degree of comfort. The lawyers are happy because clients are making an informed decision. The clients are relieved they’re going to be able to manage financially and not be in the poorhouse because they are paying support.
How long a case takes depends on how much information I have ahead of time. I might need to get a business evaluated, and might need an actuarial review of a pension. For the most part, I would work directly with the clients for a couple of months. Eighty per cent of the cases are completed within 12 months. I would do a little piece, a couple of divorce coaches/child specialists might do the same and there would be some front-end work with the lawyers and clients, then the financial plan, final decisions and the drafting and revising of the agreement.
Twenty-five per cent of the overall cases have assets between $250,000 and $499,999, another 20% have $500,000 and $999,999, 19% between $1 million and $1.9 million and 18% have $2 million and up.
You need to have a trusting, respectful relationship with the family lawyers to get collaborative practice established. I’m personally OK with the lawyers taking the lead because I view divorce as a legal process. But that’s not necessarily a commonly held view. Some feel divorce is a financial issue and advisors have all the skills to help the family manage through it. While I think we have a lot of the skills, there are matters that are strictly legal. For instance, here in Canada, you have to establish that there’s an entitlement to spousal support. That’s a legal matter, not something a financial planner can do. I want to work in what’s clearly my capacity rather than be in charge of the process.
Why I matter
Clients are being asked to make decisions that are irrevocable. Clarifying their financial position is essential, which comes from working with someone like me.