Over my 20-plus years of retirement planning, I have been asked a lot of questions. There are common ones like, “How much do I need to save for retirement?” “How long will it last?” “Do I need to work part time?” “Should I downsize or relocate?”

Thankfully, there are plenty of tools and research to help answer those questions. Some are general rules of thumb; others were formed over years of experience. But what about the tough questions? The stuff that many people are thinking about but are not quite sure how to ask or whether asking is even appropriate. Questions like these:

• Can I afford to get divorced in retirement?
• Is it OK to leave more money to one child than another?
• Do I have to name my spouse as my primary beneficiary?

Many of these questions never come up in the traditional retirement planning process because they can be subjective in nature and, given each person’s unique situation, there’s no single, best answer. As a result, some clients may suffer in silence because they don’t know whom to turn to.

So whether you are a veteran in the business or in your first couple of years, I wanted to share some thoughts and ideas on addressing difficult or uncomfortable topics when they come up.

Before we jump into each one, it’s important to have a process for dealing with them. It requires three steps: 1) Normalize the situation; 2) add context to it; and 3) share resources and wisdom.

To normalize something simply means to help someone feel as if they are not alone, or the only person going through something like this. For example, with the divorce question, a response could be, “I’m sorry to hear that things have reached this point, but you’re not the only one asking about it or seeking some input.” Many times, a client will express a sigh of relief because the elephant in the room is out and you’ve made it OK to talk about.

When you add context in a difficult situation, it gives clients some new or fresh perspective. For example, many people don’t realize that retirement is one of the top 10 most stressful life events. By simply acknowledging that fact when you’re around someone who is concerned or weighing their options means telling them their stress or worry is relevant. A lot of new and unexpected things can come up when people, especially couples, retire. It can not only take time for them to acclimate, but they may also need extra help from a third-party retirement coach or counselor.

Finally, by sharing resources or adding wisdom you can help clients take the next steps and begin to formulate a resolution for the issues they are facing. It might mean handing them a useful book or guide, referring them to a service or explaining to them how another client dealt with a similar situation. In any case, this step is valuable—it can give a client direction and a ray of hope.

Can I Afford To Get Divorced In Retirement?
I have been asked this question a handful of times and have gone through a divorce myself. So I am quick to point out to a client that both the personal and financial impact of divorce can be severe, especially during retirement. There are no simple equations or clear-cut ways to anticipate its results and ripple effects.

It can be both costly and emotionally devastating to decide how you divvy up real estate, retirement savings, pensions, a family business or stock options while also remaining mindful of life insurance proceeds, long-term-care insurance policies and debts. When you add in expenses such as attorney and filing fees, mediation charges and a host of other costs that arise, it’s easy to see how a divorce during retirement can dramatically handicap each spouse’s ability to maintain a suitable standard of living.

And you can’t split the personal assets like you could the financial assets—each person’s family and friends, who can’t be shared evenly by a judgment or court order. People inevitably take sides, both spouses are often portrayed in a negative light, leaving one or both with fewer friends and struggling for emotional support. It’s not uncommon for newly divorced people to find themselves either ostracized by other married couples or uncomfortable in such situations because they’re now single. Furthermore, it may feel awkward when family members or friends stay in touch with an ex-spouse and bring them up during conversations or invite them to events.

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