5 Divorce Questions: Interview of Lawyer Donna Neff by Russell Alexander
This week we interview Ottawa Ontario lawyer Donna Neff. Donna is a Certified Specialist in Estates and Trusts Law. Donna has gained personal experience regarding the issues that small business owners face. Although her clients include singles, couples, families, and seniors, Donna has a particular interest in individuals with a disability as she has experienced such needs within her own family.
Russell Alexander: “How often do people ask you for advice or guidance about separation and divorce and in which jurisdictions do you practice in?”
Donna Neff: “Every week several times a week, I meet with people who want to have a Will and Powers of Attorney prepared. Questions about the effect of separation and divorce are regularly part of the conversation. Some of the most challenging situations are where the clients are a couple in a common law relationship or are in a second marriage and one or both of them have children. So many people assume that after a certain period of time or if they have a child together, they have the same rights as a married couple. Most people are surprised to learn that nothing could be further from the truth. For those in second relationships, the challenge is figuring how to make sure their spouse isn’t left financially destitute while ensuring that children from a prior relationship inherit as well.
I am a Certified Specialist in Estates and Trusts Law and practice in the west end of Ottawa, Ontario”
Russell Alexander: ”What are the biggest concerns people raise with you about separation and divorce?”
Donna Neff: “(a) They want to know if updating their Wills and Powers of Attorney is really necessary. Usually people are pretty strapped for cash at the time of a breakup. Paying to have their Wills and Powers of Attorney updated can be a financial challenge. However, not taking care of this can be disastrous. Even though a separation agreement may state that a former spouse has no right to the estate of their now deceased spouse, court cases have decided otherwise where the deceased spouse didn’t bother to update his Will.
(b) It is also important for separated spouses to know that even updating a Will may not be enough. All beneficiary designations should be changed immediately. The proper papers should be signed and filed with the institution where the asset is held or administered. This includes insurance (both group and private coverages), RRSPs, RRIFs, TFSAs, and so on.
(c) If you previously named your former spouse as your substitute decision-maker for personal care and you don’t update this document, do you really want your former spouse making medical treatment decisions for you especially if the breakup was somewhat acrimonious?”
Russell Alexander: ”What advice do you have for people looking for lawyer?”
Donna Neff: “(a) Do your research … is the lawyer you are thinking of hiring focused in the area of law that you need help with or are they a jack-of-all-trades? The law is complex and no one can be a master of all areas of law … there is simply too much to keep up with.
(b) Ask family and friends who they have used for family law matters and what they thought of the results they got. Also ask what the lawyer was like to work with. Did they communicate regularly and in a timely manner? Did they really listen to you and give advice and options rather than pushing you to choose one direction or another? Most people want a lawyer who sets out the options and an estimate of cost of each so that the client decides what is best with the lawyer’s guidance.
(c) Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on cost. An experienced lawyer whose rates may be higher can end up saving you money in the long-term because they know what can go wrong and can help avoid situations that could lead to expensive litigation.”
Russell Alexander: “What are the top 3 tips you have for people going through a divorce?”
Donna Neff: “(a) Update your Will and Powers of Attorney promptly. Don’t wait for the divorce (or separation) to be finalized. If you become ill in the midst of the divorce proceedings, do you really want your ex having any control? And if you don’t currently have a Will and Powers of Attorney, get these documents as quickly as possible.
(b) Update beneficiary designations on all insurance, RRSPs, RRIFs, TFSAs, and so on.
(c) Before you live with someone or get married, seriously consider having a cohab or prenup agreement in place first. And be sure to share any such agreements with the lawyer who drafts your Will and Powers of Attorney so that your estate planning documents reflect what you’ve agreed to.”
Russell Alexander: ”What do you envision for the future of family law?”
Donna Neff: “Collaborative family law will continue to grow … makes sense to have the parties involved in crafting their own resolution if at all possible.”