You are planning to leave your marriage. Or, your spouse announces his decision to end the relationship. Questions swirl. Anger and sadness compete. You need advice.

Good advice should be sought in various places. In different combinations, a close relative or friend, a good book (or website!), a therapist, an accountant and an experienced lawyer specializing in family law may form part of your “team”. The sooner you assemble a team, the better equipped you will be to successfully navigate and resolve the issues that lie ahead.

In preparing to meet your family law lawyer for an initial consultation, consider the following:


1. Information in Advance

Most lawyers who practice in the area of family law are accustomed to meeting people in various stages of crisis or, at least, heightened emotions. Lawyers are not therapists, however. Try to organize your thoughts in advance. Summarize the facts of your situation, and consider submitting a memo for the lawyer’s review in advance of your meeting. By providing certain information in advance, the meeting will be more efficient and of greater value:

a. Names and birthdates of parents and children;

b. Dates of cohabitation, marriage and separation;

c. Children’s schooling, special needs, health concerns, extra-curricular activities;

d. Educational backgrounds, incomes and occupations of the spouses;

e. Assets and liabilities of both parties – at the start of cohabitation, marriage and separation.


2. Financial Disclosure

In many cases, one spouse has significantly more information (or access to information) about the family’s finances. In fact, the challenge of identifying and gathering one’s own data, and most especially, reliable information about one’s spouse’s income, assets and liabilities, has led some to describe the problem of non-disclosure as the “cancer of family law”. [1] With that in mind, one must be resourceful and efficient, right from the start, in gathering financial data for review by legal counsel (and perhaps an accountant or business valuator). Even if you cannot provide a complete financial “snapshot” at the initial meeting, it is best to share the information you do have, if only to identify at the earliest possible stage the material that will be required — and what can be done to get it. For example:

a. Personal Income tax returns and notices of assessments;

b. Corporate financial statements and tax returns;

c. Banking, Investment and Credit Card account statements; and

d. Property tax assessments, or other appraisals.


3. Your Objectives

Once the financial disclosure “phase” of a family law matter has been completed, many of the legal issues can be analyzed (more or less) formulaically. For example, equalization of “net family property” under the Family Law Act is a mathematical formula. Child Support is often determined strictly in accordance with Guidelines, and Spousal Support may be analyzed within ranges prescribed by “Advisory Guidelines”. Still, one should not lose sight of objectives, especially where the interests of children are at stake. For example:

a. What parenting schedule will best meet the children’s interests? Does the law default to 50/50 time sharing (and, if so, what does that look like from week to week)?

b. Will the parenting schedule impact child support (and, if so, to what extent)?

c. Is it possible to retain ownership of the family home?

d. Can the sale of the home be deferred until the end of the school year, or until a child graduates?

e. Is it possible (or appropriate) for the financial settlement to be a lump sum “clean break”, with no ongoing, monthly obligations?

A thorough discussion and understanding of your objectives will permit your lawyer to give advice and represent your interests as effectively as possible.


4. Questions and Concerns

A first consultation generally moves rather quickly. Typically, a lot of information is exchanged, and various technical legal or financial concepts are introduced. In preparing for the meeting, it is recommended that you submit specific questions or concerns in advance. For example:

a. When should a new romantic partner be introduced to children (and do the ages of the children make a difference)?

b. Does either spouse have other dependents (children, former spouse, aging parent)?

c. What is the impact of one spouse’s re-partnering on financial matters, such as Spousal Support?

d. How is property received during marriage as a gift or inheritance treated?

e. What about the value of property that was owned on the date of marriage?

f. Are the laws different for married couples as compared with unmarried (common law) spouses?

g. What is the significance of a prior criminal charge, or involvement by a Children’s Aid Society?

h. Is one spouse addicted to alcohol? Illegal drugs? Other behaviour of concern, especially when in the presence of children?

i. Are there particular factors preventing one spouse from working? From earning more income? From spending more time with the children?

Take notes during the meeting, and seek further explanation or more detail if anything is unclear. Consider whether a follow-up meeting or telephone call would be helpful.


5. Your Divorce Angel(s)

Finally, if you are intent on deriving the greatest possible value from an initial consultation with a family law lawyer, do not hesitate to bring along your divorce angel, whether he or she is a relative or friend or trusted advisor, and whether his or her role will be to take notes and ask questions, or simply provide moral support. At a minimum, you will have a kindred spirit with whom to “compare notes” as you complete your team’s roster, retain counsel, and prepare for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.


Michael B. Kleinman is a Toronto Family Law lawyer, mediator and arbitrator. He is a principal of Kleinman Gordon | Family Law.
[1] Cunha v. Cunha (1994), 99 B.C.L.R. (2d) 93 (S.C.)

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