Welcome to Financial Advisor IQ

When a Client Couple Splits, Whose Advisor Are You?

By R.A. Monroe April 23, 2014

Middle-aged Americans are untying the knot. The divorce rate among people 50 and older has doubled since 1990, even as the nation’s overall divorce rate has inched downward. And as advisors see more of their long-term client couples succumb to the trend, many will find themselves in a situation calling for finesse — especially when they have a relationship with each spouse individually. The challenge: to provide support and advice for both clients while trying not to take sides.

As soon as advisors hear a client couple is splitting, they should decide on a protocol for the advice relationship and put it in writing, says Kathleen Miller, founder of Kirkland, Wash.-based Miller Advisors, a Raymond James Financial Services affiliate managing $160 million in assets. “You need to clearly define whom you’re going to take direction from and whom you’re going to share information with,” Miller says. “Then you need to let both parties know that you’ll be sticking to those policies.”

Advisors who have worked closely with both clients can be enormously helpful when it comes to dividing assets, according to Miller. “You know their personal budgets, their red flags, their individual priorities,” she says. “Reminding clients that you’re in a good position to come up with a win-win settlement that is relevant to their particular case can help defuse the animosity.”

She suggests that advisors tell both clients they intend to take a neutral stance. Doing so can help avoid a common problem: inadvertently allying with the client who calls more often or makes more of a fuss.

Judith McGee of McGee Wealth Management, a Raymond James Financial Services affiliate in Portland, Ore., that manages $420 million in assets, agrees it’s crucial to stay impartial. She says advisors should be careful with the language they use, particularly when both spouses are in the room. “You listen, and you don’t comment,” says McGee. “You can say things like, ‘I know this must hurt badly,’ or ‘I have other clients who have gone through this process, and it does get better.’ But you want to avoid picking sides.”

Judith McGee

Because of the heavy emotional weather, McGee says, advisors should be prepared to see divorcing clients struggle when dividing up their wealth — and not just assets with deep sentimental value, like a home. “You’d be surprised at how attached people can feel to joint assets like retirement accounts and annuities,” McGee says. She recommends emphasizing what each spouse stands to gain, not what’s being given up. For example, an advisor might suggest a trade-off in which one client retains more assets and the other collects more alimony. “That can help give everyone a sense of control in an often-chaotic time,” says McGee.

Who Gets the FA?

Some clients may not feel comfortable continuing with their advisor after a divorce, says Nicole Romito, a lead advisor with Chicago-based Financial Strategy Network, which manages $700 million in assets. Recently, she addressed such a situation by keeping the wife as a client while the husband switched to a different advisor with the firm. But any time both clients stick with the same advisor — or even the same firm — it’s crucial to emphasize confidentiality. “You need to keep reinforcing boundaries, reminding the clients that you’re not the go-between anymore — even for seemingly small details, like changing the mailing address for an investment statement,” says Romito.

And while an advisor may be eager to keep working with both spouses, in some situations it may be better to cede one of them gracefully. “If you harbor suspicions that one of the clients isn’t being forthright, it can be in your best interest to consider recommending that they find another advisor once the divorce is finalized,” Romito says. To avoid the appearance of taking sides, Romito recommends framing the conversation in terms of policy, not personality. “You can tell them you try to avoid working with both partners post-divorce,” she says.