Marriage is an economic as well as an emotional partnership. When the partnership dissolves, untangling financial lives of ex-spouses while their emotional lives are in flux increases the risk of making poor financial decisions. Enter the divorce financial planner.
Over the last three decades, along with rising divorce rates, financial advisers have established a separate practice and expertise to specialize in counseling clients either recently divorced or in the process of splitting up. Today, two main professional associations, the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts (www.institutedfa.com) and Association of Divorce Financial Planners (www.divorceandfinance.org) represent more than 5,000 professionals across the U.S. who practice this subspecialty in the credential-laden financial services industry. They can partner with lawyers to keep the actual cost of divorce down, help divide assets between the couple and help the newly single make financial plans for the future.
Amy Wolff, founder of Edina-based AJW Financial, said divorce financial planners can play several different roles. They act as a neutral third party for both sides, gathering financial records, determining cost basis and tax consequences for stock holdings more efficiently than if both attorneys were duplicating efforts. They can be called on as an expert witness in complex or contested cases to offer financial perspective on questions such as valuation of assets. Most often, they act on behalf of one party in the midst of a divorce and afterward.
Wolff launched her firm in 2002 to concentrate on divorce financial planning after seeing clients who had been through a split while working as an adviser at another firm for nearly 10 years. Through that experience she saw a need "to do things differently" during the divorce process before financial decisions were made. Though she also provides financial advice to married couples and single men as a fee-based adviser, Wolff said that today 80 percent of her clients are women who are going through or have come out of divorce.
She describes the divorce process as 20 percent legal, 40 percent financial and 40 percent emotional. Working on behalf of a client, a divorce financial planner's tasks range from the mundane such as making sure passwords are changed on financial accounts and changing beneficiaries for insurance or retirement accounts to developing a new estate plan, estimating the taxes on spousal maintenance, running financial projections and evaluating settlement offers. They answer basic questions such as whether it makes financial sense to keep a house or sell it, project the growth potential and tax consequences of holding an asset and create a budget going forward.
Women going through a divorce share some common challenges, she said. Because women tend to live longer than men, financial projections have to take that longer-term perspective into account. She also sees many of her clients, who have been nurturing children throughout the marriage, unable to give up that role financially. She has had to have "difficult conversations" helping now divorced clients rethink how much financial help they can afford to provide their adult children and grandchildren as a single person with more limited resources.
Many women have been out of the workforce or only worked part time while raising children. So a key role for a divorce financial planner is helping these clients get back into the workforce, Wolff said. Sometimes that means convincing a woman to "invest in herself" through training and education to increase her earning potential.
Oftentimes before divorce, the husband "took the lead" in managing the couple's savings and investments either on his own or through an adviser where the wife was uninvolved. Emerging from such a relationship, many women need guidance and basic information on how to manage investment savings, she added. Finally, when a person remarries the financial adviser can make sure the client keeps her own assets separate in the event there is a second divorce.
Although divorce financial planning emerged as a specialty in the mid-1980s, it has continued to evolve as marriage and divorce have changed. Wolff said she is starting to see a handful of same-sex relationships dissolving among her clients, bringing up many of the same issues traditional opposite-sex couples face going through a divorce. In addition, she is seeing more two-income couples who choose to co-parent after a divorce, splitting child care custody and household upkeep. And increasingly she is seeing a role reversal in which the woman is the primary or sole breadwinner in a family, which switches the dynamic of who pays spousal support.
The family law courts that handle divorce across Minnesota are encouraging more out-of-court settlements through mediation and collaboration between lawyers, she said. These settlements are "good for families," often less expensive and the parties come up with more creative financial solutions, she added. People coming through a divorce "want to take big breath," Wolff observed. "It's emotionally tough, but the work isn't over."
Brad Allen is a freelance journalist and former investor relations executive for companies including Imation Corp. and Cray Research. His e-mail is email@example.com.