After representing numerous doctors (and the spouses of doctors) in Arizona, we realize that physician divorces are different. It is not that the law treats doctors uniquely — there are a host of considerations that are not present in many other divorce scenarios. Sure, there are the usual issues, but there are complicating factors unique to physicians, such as valuation of medical practices, high asset divisions, as well as spousal maintenance claims.
There are no clear studies on physician divorce rates, but one recent article did not glamorize success rate of doctor’s marriages. Although the accuracy 0f these statistics is not perfect, it is indisputable that these dissolutions necessitate a different level of attention because of the issues involved. Physicians generally have complex financial issues that begin with oppressive student loans, but are also typified by numerous investments including homes, vacation homes, timeshares, retirement accounts, financial accounts, non-traditional investments, and the medical practice itself.
While not meant to be comprehensive, we put together a list of special considerations that are generally critical to physician divorces. We use this list when initially consulting with physicians (or their spouses) to gather information necessary to form a deliberate legal strategy:
1. Spousal maintenance: In Arizona our statute details factors for the Court to consider in awarding maintenance (elsewhere known as alimony). These factors include, but are not limited to, length of marriage, standard of living during the marriage, and the disparity of income. While we have seen a number of physician/physician divorces, we also frequently see cases in which the physician’s income is significantly higher than that earned by the spouse. Sometimes, the non-physician spouse can also argue that they supported the physician through medical school and residency and gave up their own opportunities in the process.
2. Practice valuation: Some medical practices have an actual value, much like if the family owned a restaurant. In Arizona, the spouse would have a claim to their community share of the practice value. However, this does not apply to all physicians. For example, an Emergency Room doctor who is employed by an ER practice may simply be paid a rate for his work, much like the hospitalist trend that has taken root here in Arizona. In those situations there would not be a value to the practice. However, if that ER doctor were a partner and had an ownership interest in his practice, the analysis would be significantly different. Similarly, some medical offices have assets to value, such as a radiology practice that owns MRI machines. Some of these machines have used market values in excess of $1,000,000. If the physician spouse purchased the machine and paid it off during the marriage, the non-physician spouse could be entitled one-half the value of the equipment.
3. Debts: It is not uncommon for physicians to have large student debts that still need to be paid off. Furthermore, while some physicians may be very conscientious of the state of their marital financial affairs, others may be simply too busy and stressed with work to know the intimate details. For example, they may have no clue that their spouse has racked up significant credit card debt, which is presumably community debt to divide in a divorce. Knowing what debts you have and your options for ensuring that they get paid, including offsets from other property or even reduced maintenance, is key to a comprehensive settlement.
4. Parenting Time: Some physicians have routine and well-established schedules. Others do not and may work a rotating schedule with abnormal hours. Still other divorcees may be in medical school and looking at internships, residencies, and other jobs that may require relocation. These all play an important role in determining parenting time for the children. For physicians, or soon-to-be physicians facing divorce, it is important to maximize the quality parenting time with your children. Your parenting plan may need built-in flexibility or other creative ways to deal with potential scheduling issues that may arise.
5. Child Support: In Arizona, child support is calculated pursuant to the Arizona Child Support Guidelines. The guidelines provide the amount of support based upon the respective incomes of the parties. The guidelines, however, do not compute additional support for combined parental incomes of over $20,000 per month (i.e. your child support is essentially capped once it is calculated at any combined monthly income of the parents at $20,000). But for physicians it is not uncommon for incomes to be in excess of this per month, and by extension it is not uncommon for children to be accustomed to life styles that require higher than normally calculated child support. Child support orders may deviate from guideline amounts upon showing of good cause, but the necessity of a deviation can be difficult to discern.
6. Time and Disclosures: Often, physicians are not used to having to fully disclose all information regarding their finances to attorneys. They are also very busy with their practices and may even have schedules that are incompatible with normal working hours. This makes obtaining information that is required to be disclosed more complicated than usual. On top of this, perhaps the only exposure physicians have to attorneys before entering into a divorce proceeding is in malpractice suits. Consequently, it is not uncommon for physicians to be too busy/skeptical/jaded when asked to provide years’ worth of financial records. Despite this, the best policy is to be forthcoming with all required disclosures.
Physician dissolution cases require finesse and, above all else, trust between the parties and their attorneys. Ideally, a skilled attorney can navigate the treacherous waters of divorce without capsizing the family, the medical practice, or the parties involved, but the best results can only occur when each participant acts in good faith.