More than 2 million people get divorced every year in the United States. Divorce in this country is a $50 billion annual industry.  Divorce rates for first marriages are currently at 52 percent, and second marriage divorce rates hover at 60  (and 75 percent to-90 percent if there’s a special needs child born).  It pays to be aware of this reality when your clients tell you they’re about to get married.  Offering financial advice before clients take the plunge may seem uncomfortable, uneasy, unromantic and unfamiliar territory, but wealth planning advisors have the opportunity to bring a client and new spouse to a level of transparency and clarity that will only serve to cement their position as a trusted advisor and increase their odds of a successful marriage.

 

Seven Steps

Here are steps advisors should advise their clients to consider taking before they take the plunge into marriage.

  1. Consider keeping pre-marital accounts and any inheritances in your own name. Comingling these accounts or adding the future spouse’s name to the account without understanding how the laws of your state work could put these separate funds at risk in case of divorce.
  2. Create an  “In Case of Emergency folder.  Why? Most states require proof and statements that show any pre-marital or inherited funds. Untangling this separate property is often a costly and a time-consuming nightmare. Without the original account statements as proof, it may be close to impossible to prove down the road.  Documents to consider putting in the “In Case of Emergency” folder are:
    • Account statements at date of marriage (including any 401K’s, individual retirement account rollovers, investment accounts). (Don’t assume that you’ll be able to help your client obtain these in the future.  As we know, financial institutions merge, change and can go defunct.)
    • Obtain an appraisal of any real property you own at the time of marriage. This can be vacation homes, your primary residence and any real property you come into the marriage with or inherit during the marriage.
    • Most recent tax return.
  1. Perform an Annual  “State of the Financial Union” Address.  It’s important to sit down with your spouse on an annual basis to review:
    • Financials.
    • Tax return with an accountant.
    • Investment performance of their own and any martially created accounts.
    • Review annual spending: Are they in a deficit or a surplus for the year?

Have a conversation about money values. For example: In the event of disability, will they pay for college? Will they leave money behind for heirs, or do they want to bounce their last check on their last day on earth?  Advise your client not to abrogate their responsibility. No one should be a passive participant in the financial details of their marriage regardless of any agreements made on who will be the decision maker or financial coordinator of the marriage.  Requesting the meeting can even be diagnostic about the state of their financials.  Surprises aren’t uncommon, and an annual review will uncover any potentially dangerous financial behaviors.  Making time for this important financial discussion will provide clarity and limit the potential for financial disagreements.  This process will encourage the couple to discuss financials and remove ambiguity. In their busy lives, many clients choose to skip this meeting.

  1. Discuss how finances will be divided.
    • Talk about lifestyle, spending and savings habits.  Not all couples agree on what ‘ necessary discretionary spending should be or is.
    • Should the clients create and/or maintain joint or individual accounts? This isn’t a one size fits all answer. If a client tends to keep his head in the sand, separate accounts may not be best advice. If there are dramatically different financial habits, separate accounts may help keep the peace.
    • Beware that separate accounts may cause one person to be blindsided by the accumulation of marital debt that may be unknown to one party.
  2. Be transparent! Sharing credit reports prior to and on an annual basis during the marriage is essential.
  3. Download  “The Commitment Conversation” brochure at www.equalityinmarriage.org/cc.pdf. It’s an excellent tool that allows clients to sit together and review some important issues they need to discuss prior to taking their vows.
  4. Consider a pre-nuptial agreement.  Be aware that every marriage already has a pre-nuptial agreement: It’s called the Family Code, or law, of the state they live in. Deciding to negotiate a pre-nuptial can actually be a romantic endeavor  (true!) because you can make your own decisions about you’ll treat each other in the event of divorce and remove a lot of ambiguity. Pick up a copy of the book Pre-Nups For Lovers by Arlene Dubin, a New York City matrimonial lawyer who specializes in pre-nuptial agreements.

 

Second Marriages

For second marriages, all of the above apply but may be even more important to protect the legacy for future generations of family that aren’t shared with new spouse. An added layer of protection may be prudent including pre-nuptial. Meet with an attorney who does pre-nuptials regularly.  

 

Facilitating the Discussion

If you’re the type of advisor that has the skill set to manage difficult conversations and sit comfortable with potential conflict, you may want to offer to sit with the couple (and the other spouse’s advisor) to facilitate these important discussions. This requires superior communication and conflict resolution skills.  Consider divorce mediation training or courses.  Learning this skill set only enhances your ability to communicate even in a non-divorce situation.  If you lack these skills or don’t wish to develop them,, consider bringing in a skilled divorce financial advisor. Don’t view this as a threat to your business. It’s a value-add just like bringing in an estate planner or recommending an insurance specialist.

 

Organization Kit

Consider creating and providing a financial organization kit for clients.  A deliverable and tool to help clients organize their financial affairs will serve to further position you as a forward thinking and holistic approach type of advisor.  Suggestions include creating a binder with tabs or a cloud based document vault.