Ask most divorcing clients about their financial goals and the response can range from a blank stare to an angry diatribe. If you hope to get an informed answer, you need to identify their core beliefs and competencies about finances.
By Karen D. Sparks, Divorce Financial Analyst and Lawyer
Trying to discern client priorities in the financial area of divorce is never an easy task. The question, “What do you want?” is often met by a confused or blank stare, a rambling vent, or an aggressive answer that has undertones of anger and/or resentment. So, how do you figure out what your client’s goals actually are?
First, you need to invest in a process to work through the modalities of knowledge, global vision, and framework. Whether you handle this in-house or ask a divorce finance professional to help the client with this task, it will be time well spent as this will go a long way towards getting to, through, and over the obstacles that can crop up when discussing finances with a divorcing client.
Now, let’s take a look at what it means to work on this issue from the inside-out by turning the lens inward towards the client.
Financial Attitudes, Goals, and Knowledge
Divorce professionals have a tendency to use “divorce speak” or technical terms for allocating assets. Clients may appear to be understanding the information, but really, they zoned out after the first few sentences.
The first objective is to take the client’s “financial pulse”: what is their attitude towards money, and how comprehensive is their knowledge of how the marital finances were handled?
Attitude towards money. How we think and feel about money has a direct correlation to how our role models interacted with it while we were growing up. Some of us experienced money used as power and control; used frugally because there was never enough; used with abandon and without a budget; used to extract certain behavior results; used to placate, reward, or punish. Taking a few minutes to zero in on your client’s attitude will help you discern the right approach to take.
Marital financial knowledge. To establish a baseline for a client’s financial knowledge, ask about key financial issues in the flow of the marriage regarding investments, tax returns, credit-card debt, asset investment, living and family expenses, and other key points. This exercise often highlights areas where the client had no real knowledge or only a vague idea of what was going on – or worse, was not aware of the dissipation or transfer of valuable marital assets. Once the client understands the true marital finances, you can identify and clarify the framework for areas of emphasis or concern that need to be addressed in the allocation process.
Divorce in the United States is gradually becoming a more widespread phenomenon in cultures where historically marriage was a permanent relationship that was never legally severed.
As individuals struggle to bridge the gap between what they feel needs to happen with their marriage and how they will be viewed by their family, religion, or culture, their viewpoints can be very rigid, emotional, and power-based.
As professionals, we need to be aware of and sensitive to these cultural norms – which includes understanding how these norms might impact the financial discussion.
Stay attentive for indications of circumstances that include but are not limited to:
Managing family influence. Sometimes, a couple’s family members may insist on being involved in their divorce in some way. Here, the objective is to clearly set forth the guidelines and boundaries for your business practice so that everyone is on the same page. Make sure you have a good grasp on what is important (and why it is important) to the family in the financial resolution. This will establish an atmosphere of trust and understanding, and then you can gradually move towards narrowing the focus of your discussions to the actual individual or the couple considering divorce.
The art of discussion. Some clients will be hesitant to express themselves openly on financial matters because of their cultural or family background. Creating an atmosphere where they can feel that their concerns and questions about the divorce allocations are being heard and incorporated into the analysis will reduce their anxiety and help to keep lines of communication open and effective.
Offshore assets. There may be concerns about real and personal property acquired during the marriage and located in another country. You should know what those assets are (and, ideally, what they are worth), but unless you are an expert in this area, the only financial analysis you can do in most cases is on property acquired in the United States. You should note to the client that the pursuit of these foreign assets is a separate matter outside the scope of current proceedings.
Once you have assessed the client’s knowledge and grasped any attendant cultural issues, you will have the opportunity to focus on items that are vital to the client’s wish-list and to develop a realistic plan for allocating the marital assets.
Before asking clients what they want, you need to identify the core competencies and beliefs behind their approach towards divorce finances. Only then will you be ready to guide your clients towards the financial result that they are seeking.
Karen D. Sparks, CDFA®, JD, is the principal and owner of Divorce Financial Strategists™. In her capacity as a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®, she provides client services locally and nationwide for divorce and separation financial analysis and post-divorce implications. www.divorcefinancialstrategists.com
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