Last week, I blogged about the Information Asymmetry and how important it is for you to educate yourself going in to the divorce process so that you can meaningfully assist your attorney with your case. But what about your attorney? And what about your Judge? Isn’t it important for them to also be as informed as possible during the course of your case?
That is where experts come in.
In divorce cases, there are oftentimes issues that arise that require the input of an expert. For example, perhaps there is a dispute as to how much money your spouse is able to earn, how much his or her business is worth, or which one of you would be better to assume custody of the children.
Experts can assist your attorney present your case, and it can greatly assist the Court in deciding the case in your favor. In fact, so important may an expert be in your situation that a Court may take it upon itself to appoint one on your behalf.
Below are the most common types of experts that you should consider when moving forward with your divorce, if appropriate given the facts and circumstances of your case:
1. Vocational Expert: This will tell the Court whether one spouse is underemployed and whether he or she is capable of making more money. This expert will be important for the issue of support, which in New Jersey, is awarded in accordance with your earning capacity rather than your current income. Also, if you or your spouse has been absent from the workforce for a period of time, a vocational expert will assist the Court in determining how realistic it will be to obtain employment consistent with prior earnings.
2. Real Estate Appraiser: If there is a dispute as to the value the marital home – which is typically the largest marital asset – or other property, such as a vacation home, second home, timeshare, etc., a real estate appraiser will be key. This expert will assign a value to the property so that the equity can be appropriately divided. He or she will also provide a detailed report outlining comparable sales prices for similar properties in your neighborhood, any improvements to your home which increase its value and make it unique, and an explanation of how the value of the property was decided. If this issue is not too hotly contested, it is typical to use a joint appraiser – that is, the parties will share the expert and the cost, subject, of course, to each party’s right to obtain a second opinion.
3. Forensic Accountant: A forensic accountant will take that mess of documents – bank statements, credit card bills, canceled checks – from your filing cabinet and turn it into a report that will tell your attorney and the Court about your marital income, assets, liabilities and expenses. In short, this is the key document that will elucidate what your marital lifestyle was. This will be important for the issue of alimony – which, in New Jersey, is awarded based in large part upon the lifestyle of the marriage – and equitable distribution.
4. Business Valuator: If one spouse has an interest in a business, it will be important to understand its value for equitable distribution purposes. This does not only apply to commercial businesses. It also applies to doctors’ practices, law firms and accounting firms.
5. Custody Evaluator: If custody is contested in a divorce, a custody evaluator will almost always be necessary. The custody evaluator will make a recommendation, usually contained in a lengthy report, as to which parent is better suited to assume custody of the children following a divorce. We often see cases with three custody experts: a joint or court appointed expert, the father’s expert and the mother’s expert – all with differing opinions. It is therefore important to choose an expert that is highly qualified, well-respected in his or her field, and will command the attention of the Court.
Experts are not only helpful if your case goes to trial. They are also helpful in settling your case. For instance, if one party receives a favorable report, it may be used as a tool to obtain a advantageous settlement. The opposite is also true. If a party receives a report that is not as favorable, he or she may be more apt to settle the case rather than proceed to a hearing.
In sum, it is important not to underestimate the importance of experts when it comes to divorce. They can be a great tool in settlement and a great asset on the stand.
Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or firstname.lastname@example.org.