Those facing divorce may also be facing one of the most common fears associated with it: financial instability. It’s not unusual for people to wonder what their financial situation will be once all the assets are divided. This can be especially true if you were not the primary income earner in your marriage.
The good news is that, for most families, there’s a way to make it work. Certified divorce financial analyst, Christy Gammill, has dedicated the past 26 years of her professional career to helping people find a way to balance the assets and liabilities associated with divorce. She’s also a principal with CBG Wealth Management.
- What’s the most common concern divorcing people have about their finances?
- How do you start to unpack some of that financial terminology?
- As the financial advisor, how do you help people prepare for life after divorce?
- What is the difference in roles between a financial neutral in the collaborative divorce process and a financial advisor for one party?
- Is one of the key aspects of collaborative work that you don’t get to continue as a financial advisor for either party?
- Have you seen the collaborative divorce process really benefit people?
- What should people consider when determining whether to hire a financial advisor?
- Do you have a message of hope for anyone feeling that financial insecurity in the beginning stages of a divorce?
What’s the most common concern divorcing people have about their finances?
Universally, people are paralyzed by financial fear. There’s fear related to the relationship that crumbled after anywhere from 10 to 50 years, but there’s also fear of the unknown aftermath.
Financial fear is most common when there is a high-income, high-earning spouse who’s accumulated wealth over the years, and then a less financially sophisticated party, or the stay-at-home-spouse, who doesn’t know how much money they have. They don’t know what any of it means. They don’t know how to put it all together. They’ve never handled the bills or the investments.
Oftentimes, they’re unnecessarily shameful, but it’s how they feel, so we really try to understand our clients and help them through that; we help them understand what their specific fear is. That spouse is not only concerned whether they’ll be able to maintain their current lifestyle or provide for the kids, but they’re also fearful that they may have to go back to work. In some cases, they’ve been out of the workforce for a very long time.
And then there’s the flip side of that, where the person who was making the money may feel that they earned all of the retirement savings and that they invested wisely in all of the stock options, but now there’s fear of letting go. There’s fear of sharing because they feel it’s all theirs.
Finally, there’s also fear of liquidity. If you’ve got a real estate developer who has tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in investment properties, they may not be liquid enough to divide the assets and pay off the other spouse. So, there’s a fear about how they’ll make this work. Even when people want to work together, there’s also a money-related shame that comes into play for feeling ignorant. I can’t tell you how many times a client comes into my office, scared to death, and yet they have more than enough. Sometimes, they feel ashamed that they weren’t more involved in the finances.
You’re touching on something that I see, as well. And, personally, I’ve felt embarrassed to ask questions about finances. If there are different types of assets, different types of holdings, and even language like “liquidity,” these terms can be overwhelming for somebody who hasn’t been managing household finances.
How do you start to unpack some of that financial terminology?
First, it’s important to get the client comfortable and let them know that there’s a team of people—their lawyer, their financial advisor, their therapist—all available to help them go through this. We are going to help them understand what’s important to them, and we’re going to find a solution.
To your point on terminology: liquidity is just money that you could spend and use for your living expenses, your mortgage, your groceries, your vacations, your cars, private school, whatever it may be that’s important to you. Liquidity is related funds that are readily available today. Whereas that “made-up” real estate developer I referenced earlier might have a lot of money in investments, so they can’t necessarily access cash to make it liquid.
We reassure the clients that we’re going to work together to find solutions so that they can have access to funds. When somebody comes into the office, my goal is that after the first meeting they say, “I feel better.”
I always tell people, “It’s okay if you don’t know. That’s why we hire professionals. That’s why we have experts.” It’s ok to ask questions. It’s ok if you need to call a timeout and go over that again.
As a financial advisor, how you help people prepare for life after divorce?
First it goes back to understanding that resources are assets as well as potential liabilities, and then I discuss the dream scenario. Maybe you only have assets and no liabilities. That’s very rarely the case, but I’m trying to discover the timeframe in which monies become liquid. For example, it might not be time for your retirement funds to be accessed because you’re not 59 and a half. In such a situation, we put the money in different places, so they have access to it.
We also want to understand what’s important to our clients. What are their money values, their family values, and how do they spend their time? We ask these soft questions throughout the process because you may have to make choices about having a nicer house or being able to be more frivolous like shopping for handbags or taking vacations. So, we understand there are values, and we create a financial plan.
Also, we let the party know that they’ll receive X amount of money at the end of this divorce or figure out the percentage of what is being divided. About 75 to 80% of the people we see do not have a budget and have not seen their finances on a spreadsheet, so we help them understand. We look at electric bills, we project the property taxes and the mortgage. We guesstimate what we think everything’s going to cost.
And there’s going to be a lot of shame in that as well, especially if money was something that was fought over in the marriage.
I think this is a real opportunity to hit the reset button because one of the benefits of divorce is you get to take control and begin to build your life according to your values.
Yes, you get to be in control of your own financial destiny.
Much like a conversation with your doctor, you come clean and tell your financial advisor how it’s been and where you want to go, and we’ll do a diagnostics test. We’re going to figure out what your resources are: assets, liabilities, income, earning ability, potential inheritances, or access to a trust.
We help map a financial plan, so you’ll know that your investments are going to earn X amount of money. We figure out if they’re in disbursement mode or income mode and whether they’re portfolio dependent. I don’t really like the word “budget.” Instead, the goal is to get that client to live within the means that we’ve established will work for them. We formulate a plan that creates comfort, and it’s designed by them, and they’re in complete control.
And it’s not like you’re trading your spouse for a financial planner who’s going to be the boss of you. That’s where I’ve seen the light bulb go on for so many of my clients—when they reconnect with some of the things they were passionate about before the marriage. Maybe it’s travel; maybe they have hobbies; maybe they have friends and family they haven’t seen for a while. Suddenly, when they begin to construct their life around what’s important to them, you see this dramatic shift. But it’s important to know that working with a financial planner doesn’t mean you’re handing over control to somebody else.
You make a great point. I often hear my clients say that they now feel confident in themselves, and they never thought they could do it. I always tell them, “This is your process—your plan.” I teach, I educate, I support and advise, but it’s ultimately it is their life and their decisions.
It’s remarkable to see how satisfying it is for clients when they realize that they can do it. They may not have been financially savvy, but they just need to be confident that they’re the one in control, making these decisions, reconnecting with hobbies or friendships or activities. The reset button, as you said, can be a real blessing.
Often, we see people at one of the worst times in their life—when they’re just beginning the divorce process. But then you see them come out the other side, and that happens because they’re supported by a team of people who can support their dreams happening.
What is the difference in roles between a financial neutral in the collaborative divorce process and a financial advisor for one party?
In a collaborative divorce the financial neutral is there to listen to what’s important to each party. The primary role at the beginning of the case is to gather the financial information from both parties, including the expenses, the credit card balance, the tax returns, the investments, statements, the mortgage balance, and/or the company benefits book.
We gather the information and put it into a portal that’s accessible to both parties and then help identify exactly what’s there. Ultimately, the financial neutral (in this case, me) might be working with teams of people in HR, or with the CFO of privately owned companies, to understand everything involved and to help the attorneys understand what the assets and liabilities are.
It’s really about gathering information and being transparent to take down the walls of distrust and let them know that I’m here to bring out the information and share it. The intent is to give them assurance that everybody is on the same page. We’re on equal turf, and we’re sharing the information to discuss what’s there.
Then, in a collaborative divorce, we work as a team. It’s usually a six-person meeting with each person’s attorney, a mental health professional, myself, and the clients. We talk to the mental health professional about what’s important to each party. It may be the kids. It may be maintaining a friendship or cordial relationship to co-parent moving forward. And then it gets into the money.
We ask: What are your goals? What are your interests?
After we hear the clients discuss that, we try to help them understand what’s there and share all the information about what their financial needs are versus what the resources are. We build a spreadsheet of the assets and liabilities, and then we work with each party and their lawyer to build their dream scenario—option #1 and option #2—and then we share them with the other party.
One of the things that I love about working with you as a financial neutral is having a point person to be able to ask the right questions.
I think education is the key to taking away that fear. It may be fear of losing control or losing the relationship. I feel like a mediator in my role. I’ll listen to each party and then say, “Okay, let’s get everybody back on target with the goals, objectives, and interests to get through this process.”
The next part of that is how this differs from being an advocate, where I may be hired by one spouse versus working with the team and hired jointly. In that scenario, I’m an advocate for my client.
In either case, it is good practice to always be transparent and forthcoming with information versus non-disclosing information, but I’m really advocating for what my client needs, and I’m going to push harder as an advocate than as a neutral. In that situation, I’m saying, “Here’s the information. Now, how do we negotiate and get what my client needs?” Because I’m going to continue to work with them throughout their post-divorce life, managing their investments with them and helping them make wise decisions.
After being the financial neutral in a collaborative divorce can you continue to work for either party?
No, because that could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
Have you seen the collaborative divorce process really benefit people?
I think that the team approach is really important. You’ve got this team of people looking out for your family now.
And it’s not that your lawyer isn’t an advocate because we’re still working for our clients, but the collaborative process brings different energy into the room when the goal is to solve the problem and not to beat the other side up.
Yes. And to hear what’s important to each party and to get there together. I think it’s about that post-divorce relationship. Most people have children, and the smoother that they can interact with each other with the children around, the better. Whether they’re young children or adult children, it’s important to minimize any coparenting conflict to the extent that it’s possible.
What should people consider when determining whether they should hire a financial advisor?
I think that most people can’t afford not to hire a financial advisor!
The embedded cost of a financial advisor should be transparent, and it should be minimal. There may be some embedded costs on XYZ’s platform because you’re in their funds and they have associated fees, but the cost is minimal.
I think what’s important in deciding whether to have a financial advisor is making sure that you’re a fit for that financial advisor’s clientele. The financial advisor may have a minimum to meet, so make sure that you’re in the range, and make sure that you’re not at the bottom of that range necessarily. You want to know that you’re going to get the attention that you need and understand the services you’re getting.
In addition to managing the money, usually, financial advisors are paid based on a percentage of the assets under management or on a percentage of the net worth—whatever’s agreed upon.
The incremental value of avoiding mistakes you might otherwise make without a financial advisor is incredible. As an example, you might hire a personal trainer for physical benefits but not hire a dietician because you already know what not to eat. The same is true with a financial advisor. You have to see what your needs are and what your financial advisor specializes in.
You know, every time you want to go to Neiman Marcus, you don’t need to call me. I just want to know, “Are you living within that monthly amount that we decided worked within your future goals to keep you financially secure?”
If you go to an established financial advisor, there’s going to be layers of people on teams that may work with your children who are up and coming—maybe they just got out of college and they’re starting to make money. So, looking for somebody that has a diverse team may benefit you more than the one-man or one-woman shop.
I say, go interview two or three financial advisors, and trust your intuition in terms of who is a fit for you. See if there’s a connection. Can you put your trust in that person? Do you understand what they can do for you? Also, you’re not signing up for the rest of your life; they must do a good job to keep you on as a client.
Absolutely. Especially during times like this when things are rather volatile.
Absolutely. We help keep people in their seats when it seems like the plane is about to crash. It’s a bumpy ride, but we can stay the course. It’s really about understanding the fears.
Many clients have never understood what a portfolio means, and without getting into all of those details, it’s our role to understand their level of experience and educate them. There has to be trust in the process so we can be there for our clients in these turbulent times. We’re here to hold their hand and to listen and reassure them that this is one of those downturns we’ve already accounted for. Rest assured; this was included in the plan.
Do you have a message of hope for anyone feeling that financial fear in the beginning stages of a divorce?
I would say consult with and hire a divorce lawyer that you trust as soon as possible. Get a team going as soon as possible and get the information out there as soon as possible. Get educated as soon as possible. The sooner we can provide peace and say, “Here’s your worst outcome. You’re going to be okay,” the sooner your life will feel better.
We’ll work together to help you decide how to make your new financial picture look lovely, and you’ll be on the other side of this, and your hand will be held along the way.