Advisors know a divorce can be one of the most dangerous financial risks clients will ever face. And as financial professionals, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t address that risk.
But how do you broach a topic so intensely personal? How do you deal with the emotions? And, most importantly, how do you get anywhere if the client seems reluctant to address or even mention the subject?
First, keep these tips in mind
Even the most amicable of break-ups is difficult to deal with. So you can’t expect people to be at their best. You, on the other hand, may need to change your approach slightly, in order to better suit the situation.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Be compassionate – No, you’re not a therapist or divorce counsellor. But you should be prepared to listen, to be empathetic, and to be sensitive to your clients’ emotional states.
Be clear and concise –Don’t rattle off case studies or talk about provincial divorce law. Clients aren’t looking for legal doctrine—they’re looking for practical advice and guidance during a difficult time.
Leave the jargon at home – Professional language and legal jargon present challenges for clients at the best of times. That goes double during a divorce. Avoid technical terms. Use plain language to explain decisions and options.
Use tools – The emotions of a divorce make it hard for some clients to concentrate or remember what you tell them. Handouts, articles, and other takeaways to read later can help remind clients of important concepts.
How do you start a conversation about what’s going on at home? Here are some sample conversation starters.
Not all of these will work with all clients, but they can provide ways in to the conversation.
Once you ask these questions, remember to wait patiently for answera. Don’t be too quick with a follow-up since the objective is to get clients talking.
Ask about the future
Divorce will have a big impact on a client’s future—financial or otherwise. So instead of talking about his divorce, talk about his future instead.
Say: “Helping clients envision the future is central to what I do as an advisor. So what does your life now look like in five years? What do you want to accomplish?”
Depending on the client’s personality (and the strength of your relationship with him), a more direct approach may work best. You don’t have to mention the D-word when asking about his spouse; simply asking how that spouse is doing will usually do the trick.
“I’ve noticed [spouse’s name] isn’t here today. How is he/she?”
“I saw [spouse’s name] at the grocery store last week. What’s new with her/him?”
Offer a helping hand
The best way to address a difficult topic is simply to open the door for further service—for whatever they may need—and to let the client walk through.
Say: “You know I have experience in many different elements of personal finance. So let me ask you: beyond your portfolio, how can I be of help to you? What else can I do to help your financial situation?”
Keeping conversations going
Sometimes clients will admit they’re having trouble at home, but then they’ll shut down. Here are some suggestions on how to open up the discussion, and segue to financial matters.
Try asking about the kids
Thinking about the children can open up different avenues for discussion. It also can help clarify priorities when a settlement seems mired in conflict.
Say: “Sometimes it’s tough to think about what you want from a divorce. So let me ask you this instead: what do you want for your kids? What do they need from this process?”
Most people getting divorced look to protect their assets, fearing division will leave them poor or that the other party is undeserving. You need to clear the air on this topic.
Say: “We’ll have to talk frankly about all your assets during this process. It’s critical to making a clean and transparent division. While I can understand why you may not want to be entirely forthcoming about this, I’m telling you now that I need you to be. If you don’t, it may become impossible for me to help you.”
Let them know they’ve got time
Part of what makes divorce difficult is the perception that all the decisions need to be dealt with all at once. That’s not necessarily true. Giving clients time can help alleviate the stress, and keep a difficult conversation moving forward.
Say: “Divorce is really stressful. But I want to be clear about something: we don’t have to make any decisions right away. Let’s keep talking about the issues—we can worry about decisions a little later.”
Ending on a positive note
How you end a conversation about divorce is just as important as how you start it. Your main goal: to communicate how you’re here to be of service.
Tell them there is a finish line
Clients need to know difficult times won’t last forever—that while the work and the planning the client is doing now may certainly be difficult, it will ultimately be for the best.
Say: “You will move on from this. You won’t dwell in this place forever. Working together, we can help you put much of this in the past.”
Let them know you’re there
Clients need to know your number one goal is to help them through their financial challenges.
Say: “When you’re going through a difficult time, the thing that matters most is knowing there’s someone in your corner. And that’s exactly where I am: in your corner, looking out for your interests.”
Give clients resources
Few things are more valuable than a referral to a trusted professional. If you have experts within your network who can help your client, passing on those names can be a great idea.
Say: “Listen—I know you have a lot of questions and concerns about this. I happen to know some people working in [specific area of expertise] who can help answer those questions. If you’re interested, I’d be happy to pass on their numbers.”