Divorce and Family Law for Professionals: A Few of the Distinctive Issues Often Faced by Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, and Others

Surprisingly to many, divorce rates among physicians, attorneys, accountants, and other highly trained professionals tend to be fairly low. A 2010 study in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology ranked these four professions well below the average with regard to the actual likelihood of separation and divorce.

Of course, that is only part of the story. In practice, doctors, lawyers, dentists and other highly trained professionals typically face some of the most complex and challenging divorce processes of all when a breakup does become inevitable.

The same holds with regard to a variety of other family law matters that can arise in conjunction with divorce or on their own. With some of the issues that are most likely to manifest being nearly unique to a handful of professions, a brief look at a few of these will reveal that low rates of separation do not necessarily translate into simple or straightforward divorces.

Wealth, Distinctive Business Structures, and Professional Obligations Can Make for a Challenging Divorce

Virtually all physicians, attorneys, dentists, and financial professionals are ambitious, hardworking people. Even just the training it takes to get started in such careers tends to select for the kinds of focused, success-oriented, goal-driven people who generally fare best in the modern economy.

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In addition to having typically high earning potential, these kinds of professionals and similar ones are quite a bit more likely than most to work for themselves or in partnerships alongside their peers. All of these details combine to frequently make divorce and other family law matters especially complex and challenging, in the average case, when such professionals are involved. Some of the issues that most often make for more complicated divorces, child custody and support arrangements, and other family law concerns include:

  • High net worth and income. The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks doctors and dentists of twelve different specialties above all other professions in terms of average annual earnings. Attorneys, financial advisors, and accountants place high as well, with average salaries well into the six-figure range being the norm for most such professions. These facts have many professionals out-earning their spouses by significant amounts, which can make for a surprising awakening when it comes time to calculate support payments. In many cases, highly driven professionals may not even have thought specifically about such matters and the implications before divorce makes them impossible to ignore.
  • Complicated financial situations. Many professionals also end up with assets and liabilities spread much more widely than the average working adult. Debts from graduate school and getting a professional practice off the ground, on the one hand, might weigh against the value of expensive medical equipment, partnership interests, and intangible goodwill, on the other. Assessing the balance when a divorce necessitates the division of property generally requires in-depth accounting, determined diligence, and plenty of cooperation in good faith. Spouses of professionals will often hire forensic accountants to be tasked with ensuring that assets and sources of income do not end up hidden away amid such financial complexity. It will almost always take more work than might be expected to arrive at the kind of detailed financial picture that must be established in the course of just about every divorce.
  • Professional corporations and partnerships. Almost any closely held business can be challenging to put a price tag on, and the business structures favored by many professionals are often even more so. Some professional partnerships even lack clear-cut “buy sell” agreements that define processes by which one partner’s interest can be valuated and liquidated, when necessary. A sole attorney’s thriving legal practice might not possess much in the way of concrete assets, but the value of its goodwill could be surprising to its owner when the issue must be settled in the course of a divorce. It will rarely make sense to grant the other spouse a share in an LLP or professional corporation, meaning that assets of similar value must often be assigned, instead. That will sometimes leave a physician or attorney with very little of the real property and liquid assets that had been accumulated over the course of a marriage.
  • Demanding professional lives. Finally, many successful professionals are career-driven people who can rarely afford to take much time off. That alone can make it difficult to keep up with the demands of a divorce process or the resolution of another family law matter. It will also sometimes make it more difficult to achieve more specific related goals, as when a professional’s inevitably demanding schedule could be taken to rule custody of children out. Divorce is typically stressful and difficult even for those who have plenty of free time and few obligations, and many professionals will, by default, find it even more so.

Patience, Preparation, and Support Pay Off

For these reasons and others, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals must always take divorce seriously and do everything possible to prepare for the challenges that will inevitably arise along the way. That means recognizing from the start that simply being in one of these lines of work or a similar one will normally both raise the stakes and make things significantly more complicated than usual.

Naturally enough, having access to the right kinds of legal counsel and representation will always be helpful, as well. While some few divorces can accurately be described as “routine,” that is not the norm at all, in general. This is even less often the case with regard to divorces and other family law matters when professionals like doctors, attorneys, or accountants have interests to be protected and important goals to be achieved.

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