Up for a different kind of challenge? Try assisting a new widow who is being aggressively targeted by a broker working for her late husband's life insurer-before the company has paid the death benefit due her. Or the divorcee who is tempted to splurge with her settlement money. Or the former longtime girlfriend who now has to figure out what to do with her half of a business.
Working with the newly single can be fraught with complexities, but those who do it well say it's a way to win the loyalties of people who are in great need of financial guidance and often grow into great clients. With divorce rates running at 50% for both first and second marriages, baby boomers aging and more couples deciding not to marry, the pool of newly single clients is growing at a brisk pace.
How can advisors win newly singles' business and work with them in a meaningful and profitable way?
Be prepared to deal with red tape, immediate planning needs and at least partial client paralysis, says Susan H. O'Grady, president of Equipoise Wealth Management in Denver, and a certified divorce planner who also serves as a divorce mediator. Many of these prospective clients won't walk in the door until the ink is dry on their divorce papers, their spouses are buried or they've split from their significant other. Many will be women, since men, according to the advisors interviewed, don't seem to seek financial planning help as readily. In most cases, you won't get the chance to mastermind these clients' finances or plans beforehand. Your job will be to ensure that they are realistic and on track to maximize their assets and minimize their taxes.
"We bring trusted, objective advice to the table and do what the client sometimes can't or won't do," says O'Grady. While she usually works with clients on an asset-based or flat-fee basis, O'Grady will work with newly single clients for a fee of $150 an hour to ensure they have access to the services they need.
Helping clients find and then obtain their assets sometimes can take months, O'Grady says. That's what happened earlier this year, when she began working with a widow whose husband had committed suicide after losing a significant portion of their retirement assets as a secret day-trader. O'Grady says that doing the bulk of this kind of nitty-gritty work can help clients move forward with their financial plans, without being waylaid by paralysis. "I'm working with a divorcee who can't get statements on her husband's IRAs. The way I help her is by drafting the letters to the broker-dealers, so she doesn't have to worry about what wording will or won't work."
The rule of thumb for major financial decisions? Most advisors say newly single clients shouldn't make any immediate, irrevocable decisions concerning their money or lifestyle for at least six months. In other words, it may be a good idea to refrain from selling a home on the spur of the moment or taking extended family on a luxury two-week cruise. Still, some actions just can't wait.
Clients may need budgeting assistance and help understanding their cash flow. "It's important to ascertain how much financial sophistication a client has," says Alexandra Armstrong, chairman of Armstrong, MacIntyre & Severns in Washington, D.C., and author of On Your Own: A Widow's Passage to Emotional and Financial Well-Being (Dearborn Press).
"Someone can be great at public relations or retail, but not at picking investments. They may not know the first thing about risk or asset allocation."
Helping clients get a grip on their assets and ensuring that they are in the right name or are titled properly and have the beneficiaries named are all activities that advisors can assist with early in the engagement, Armstrong says. Making changes to wills, insurance policies and estate plans also are priorities. A bit less fascinating, but equally important? Make sure that clients aren't paying bills or contributing to investments that no longer are theirs. It's easy to forget about automatic transactions that were set up years ago.
Armstrong says it's crucial for advisors to expedite matters that need attention without putting undue stress on newly single clients. "These people are in shock, often more than they realize themselves, even if they don't seem to be," she says. "People are superstitious when it comes to planning for widowhood, divorce or separation. They may have hoped to muddle through and were afraid planning for the eventuality would bring it about."
There's more red tape for advisors to handle. Although the legal distribution of property may be outlined clearly in writing, that doesn't mean actual assets have been transferred or tapped or, in cases of divorce and relationship dissolution, that qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs) are being followed.
Barbara A. Comer, a principal with Comer & Greak Financial Consultants in New Haven, Conn., says it's important for advisors to examine and analyze clients' property settlements to ensure that provisions are being followed. "It's important to follow through and ensure that any changes or distributions that are supposed to be made to life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s and mortgages are happening," Comer says.
That's equally true of QDROs, which are legal documents that, among other things, tell qualified plan administrators the percentage or dollar amount that must be distributed to nonemployee spouses or partners. An administrator's failure to register a QDRO can be disastrous if a client allows the assets to grow inside the plan and the former spouse subsequently attempts to borrow the assets or dies, at which point distribution is made to a new spouse and/or beneficiaries. QDROs, when put in place properly, eliminate these types of misfortunes.
Other agreements, decrees and orders advisors can check on to ensure they're being enforced may stipulate certain future dates for, say, the sale of a home, the distribution or payment of assets or even the refinancing of loans and mortgages. A former partner also may be ordered to invest for a child's college education.
"There is so much red tape. Making sure that what is supposed to happen happens and doesn't fall through the cracks is a tremendously important benefit planners can provide," Comer says. "Part of our role is to be a facilitator, coordinator and processor."
Tax planning also is crucial and should take place before assets and distributions are made. The parties who draft or agree to orders, decrees and arrangements aren't charged with minimizing taxes. As a result, certain decisions that may seem innocuous can be extremely costly to newly single clients.
Many clients try to tap partners' 401(k)s and IRAs, without realizing how much this can cost them in taxes and penalties. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it's necessary. On the other hand, leaving the assets where they are allows them to grow tax-deferred. Distributions from retirement plans and IRAs are hit with income taxes, and IRAs are hit with an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty. "It's a temptation," O'Grady says. "That's why it's important for planners to present clients with a list of all of their alternatives."
Of course, some may not be able or willing to make all of the decisions needed to create a comprehensive financial road map up front. "Periodic checkups can help," says Armstrong. "I tell clients, 'A year from now, you'll be in much better control than you are now, and we'll work toward that together.' It's a wonderful opportunity to build a sound, continuing relationship."
As you help clients clear some of the most pressing hurdles, there also is an opportunity to create or rebalance asset allocation plans. Their money and investment style may be very different today than they were in their former relationships. Changes in assets or income needs also may alter clients' risk tolerance and investing needs.
Although assisting newly single clients is an opportunity for asset gathering, sometimes leaving assets where they are makes the most sense for emergency savings or tax purposes, or because they're well-invested already. "When that's the case, that's what we tell the client," says Suzzette B. Rutherford, a principal with Rutherford Asset Planning Inc., which has offices in New York City and Naples, Fla.
But that doesn't mean you won't win the client. "After helping people through one of the most difficult events in their life, you'll know their financial and legal situation better than anyone," Rutherford says. "That makes you a natural to help them."