On Divorce as a Human Transition

Nobody ever said divorce was pretty. But experts’ estimate that nearly 50% of American marriages end in divorce indicates that the experience certainly is human. And when two people, once joined by marriage, head off in new directions, each of them will encounter change and uncertainty, a possible intermingling or rotation of anxiety and excitement, and, of course, big financial shifts. Having someone to prepare and guide them in making the best possible decisions can affect the rest of their lives.

Our Human Approach

Here at the Financial Transitionist Institute®, our research and work with clients tells us that human experiences form the powerful undercurrent and challenges of the divorce process. And since the human element drives and shapes decision-making, addressing it with the same attention we devote to the technical aspects of divorce can make that technical side much more productive.

That’s why our model and process for serving clients experiencing divorce (and other transitions) is always a fully integrated one that emphasizes a true blending of technical and personal tools for successful divorce planning.

Financial Transitionists® recognize that while a client may go from married to divorced in a relatively short time, learning how to thrive as complete person who is simply no longer married to that previous spouse is something altogether different. Working productively through a life change that alters one’s very identity can take years, and it’s not unusual for a person to experience everything from mind-numbing shock to confusion to hopelessness to anger along the way. Focus issues are common, as are inconsistent behavior and communication difficulties.

One Transitionist’s Experience

Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® Barbara Shapiro says she has seen firsthand the value of blending the human with the technical when guiding financial planning clients who are experiencing divorce.

“The majority of my clients are wracked with indecision and are emotionally paralyzed. They intellectually know that they are making life-altering decisions and feel completely stuck. The skills I learned as a Certified Financial Transitionist® help me help them feel comfortable with those decisions.”

“I often work with a spouse who doesn’t know the difference between a stock, a bond, and a mutual fund,” says Shapiro. “Their amygdala – the fight or flight section of the brain – shuts them down and they are incapable of making a choice. My job is helping them learn in a non-infantilizing manner, so that they can decide what they need and want from the divorce settlement. I’m not making choices for them; I’m guiding them to make their own choices that are comfortable for them.”

“What getting the CeFT® designation will do is really make you pay attention to your clients, and listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. Otherwise, you’re not serving them as well as you could. You’re doing the paperwork, but you’re not helping them move on.”

“There’s so much emotion involved in divorce, and you miss a lot if you don’t pay attention to it,” notes Shapiro. “It isn’t just about dividing money. The CeFT® training has helped me give people a safe place to ask their questions, to cry, to work through what their fears are, to figure out where they want to go and how they want to get there. It’s about melding the important financial part with the equally-important emotional part.”

Tools to Help Humans

Below are just a few of our tools that can make a world of difference to your financial planning clients going through divorce:

Decision Free Zone (DFZ)

What some clients need most is a time to experience and process what is happening to them without the pressure and clutter of a million nonessential decisions. The DFZ helps you sort and prioritize with clients, calming the noise of all the competing things they are feeling pressured by. It shows them how little they actually need to do or decide right now and what can be deferred. Just be sure that everyone involved in the NOW and SOON to-do lists knows who is doing what and what the target timeline is. Also, keep track of what has been done; a feeling of competence and forward motion as items are ticked off the list(s) will inspire clients’ confidence in doing what remains to be done.

Communication Preferences

It may sound like a no-brainer, but determining the best way to communicate with your clients to ensure that they understand what you’re telling them is not to be taken lightly. Some clients want to read what you have to say, others want a brief list of bullet points, and some prefer a visual with as little text as possible.

Shapiro always asks her clients, “How do you want to receive information? Do you want me to call you, or email you, or deliver it in person? How do you process information? Are you visual, or are you auditory? If you’re visual and I were to talk to you, you might not process it as well as if you had a document to read. What’s the best way of interacting to raise your comfort level? Some people like to get things ahead of time and read them, and other people don’t want that. CeFT® training gives me the tools to ask a client these questions.”

Find out what works for your clients, and don’t fall into a one-and-done mindset. Be attentive and keep reevaluating from time to time. People’s needs can change. What’s more, you’ll need to help your client understand his or her soon-to-be-ex’s communication style!

One-Page Overview (One-Pager)

By providing a visual overview of each segment of the plan for NOW, this tool keeps the focus on the present and helps clients feel confident because they understand the topic at hand. When someone fully understands the topic or plan, follow-through tends to be easier. Avoid combining things like portfolio allocation and cash flow. Think one-hurdle-at-a-time, and when in doubt, simplify!

Managing Expectations

A lot goes unsaid during a divorce, but expectations are there, voiced or not. Clarifying assumptions about what your client will give, share or do in light of this life change is crucial. This tool helps clients look closely at expectations (their own and those of others) by breaking them down into Who, What, When, How Much and How the Client Feels about the expectation. Once the list is completed, you can help the client script responses to situations that either need definition and limitation, or that put an end to the expectation.

Positive Outcomes

Divorce doesn’t have to be an exclusively doom-and-gloom situation. It doesn’t happen by magic, but one truly can learn to view it as just another of life’s changes, one that translates into an opportunity for learning, growth, and new meaning. And there’s plenty that an advisor who understands the personal (as well as the technical) side of transition, can do to encourage and nurture clients. A skillfully blended approach to financial planning helps clients learn to embrace the positive opportunities that the transition affords them, while also building or strengthening valuable skills they’ll undoubtedly need for the next change life brings their way.

“I think the cross-pollination of the CDFA and the CeFT® has really made my practice grow,” says Shapiro. “I have a lot of clients who stayed with me for financial planning post-divorce. They stay because I’ve helped them through one of the most painful experiences they’ll ever have. I have the tools to help them make those decisions in a way that makes sense for them.”

Good news! We have a Divorce-centric Core class beginning in September! Find out more here!

And if an introductory workshop is more your speed right now, click here.