Why advisors should get personal with divorcing clients

By Nathalie Boutet | September 19, 2016 | Last updated on September 21, 2023
4 min read

Chances are, every advisor will encounter a client whose marriage breaks down. Advisors who are afraid to touch such an emotionally charged issue miss important opportunities to connect with clients.

Here are simple tips so you know what to say to clients who may be facing separation.

Signs of marital difficulty

Experiencing problems at home is usually devastating and embarrassing — and no one likes to talk about it. Family trouble can lead to emotional withdrawal, depression, anger and even domestic violence.

Couples confronting a divorce may face such harsh circumstances as life without their family, not seeing their children every day, selling the family home, having to change the kids’ schools, returning to work after a prolonged absence while looking after the children, and dividing wealth and revenues.

Each client will experience marital breakdown in different ways: silently, alone, or with the support of friends or a therapist. Regardless, usually people close to them can tell something is different.

If you advise a couple whose marriage is in distress, you might detect them arguing more with each other. One may have started to take more vacation without the other, one or both spouses may be asking unusual questions about their portfolio, and in the more obvious cases, clients may ask to separate their accounts.

If you are the advisor for only one family member, you may detect the person being more stressed out or anxious about their financial situation.

It goes without saying, however, that people may display the above behaviours because of factors unrelated to their marriage, so it’s important to not make assumptions.

Read: Valuing an advisor’s business in a divorce

How can I broach the topic without offending or alienating the client?

Conversations about a client’s personal or family turmoil need to be handled with the utmost respect. Further, they need to be tailored to the individual communication style of each client. There is not one right way to broach the topic of marital breakdown.

The answer to a general statement may provide clues on the client’s willingness to discuss the topic. It is appropriate to start with: “How are things? You seem tenser these days. Is there anything I should know about your circumstances?”

Some clients will never be comfortable acknowledging their personal or family difficulties because it’s too embarrassing and painful. If the client avoids answering the question, be respectful and do not pursue the inquiry. However, if there is a strong personal connection with the client, it is also appropriate to broach the subject again at a later time if your concern about the client’s well-being persists.

Read: Financial planners can help craft better divorce settlements

On the other hand, some clients will welcome the opportunity to discuss personal matters. In these cases, the business relationship will likely be enhanced if the client is given an opportunity to talk about more than just how the markets are doing and how the portfolio is performing.

People facing such important life events are emotionally depleted and may demand more of your time and energy. Like the relationship a lawyer or doctor has with clients, it is good to develop the ability to show genuine care and concern but from a healthy emotional distance.

What if I don’t ask about separation?

A divorce will significantly impact someone’s financial perspective. For example, someone whose portfolio was divided in half is likely to become less tolerant of riskier investments. Similarly, families that now have to support two households may need to re-think the timing of retirement.

Advisors who are too nervous to bring up the issue of someone’s divorce may be missing an opportunity to be able to tailor their services upon a client’s changing financial needs.

Read: How to retire after a mid-50s marriage

At what point does a lawyer step in?

A marital breakdown is scary: people do not know what it will be like for them and their family. People imagine that the worst. Not knowing one’s rights and obligations frequently creates fear and anxiety.

Some people are reluctant to consult with a family lawyer for fear this will mean they have given up on their marriage. They may prefer not to consult until they know for sure there will be a separation.

However, most clients find it reassuring to get answers to their numerous legal questions, even if the answers are not always what they would like to hear. It is recommended that people see a family lawyer whenever they become nervous about their situation, whether the separation is official or not.

Read: Help clients figure out when child support ends

Advisors can help ease their client’s anxiety over a marital breakdown by recommending that they consider lawyers who practice collaborative law. The American Bar cites an 86% success rate for all collaborative law cases, and similar success rates are seen around the world.

Most communities have collaborative law associations that have websites listing local lawyers.

Nathalie Boutet

Nathalie Boutet is a family lawyer, mediator and certified Family Enterprise Advisor™ specializing in high-net-worth families and business owners. She can be reached at nboutet@boutetfamilylaw.com.