Financial Planning For Couples Who Totally Disagree
Money is said to be one of the top causes of marital distress. The disagreements it causes can go beyond day-to-day spending for cars, clothes and other creature comforts. Conflicting attitudes toward budgeting, savings, investing or even how to spend retirement money can scuttle the best-laid financial plans.
People today tend to marry later in life, and their preferences regarding a host of factors typically are far more established than previous generations. What’s a financial planner to do if a married couple simply cannot agree? These financial advisors and planners have a few recommendations.
“It is completely natural and expected to have differences of opinion,” says Clay Ernst, executive director of financial planning at Edelman Financial Engines in Colorado Springs, Colo. “As an advisor, I try to work through these differences by bringing objective, unbiased opinions into the discussion, sort of like a referee.”
To be a good referee, though, you must try to stay neutral. “Remain open to and understanding of each [partner’s] financial goals and values,” says Chris McMahon, president and CEO of Aquinas Wealth Advisors in Pittsburgh. “Come to an agreement that both parties are comfortable with, as well as a plan for how to reach those goals.”
Impartiality is key. “It’s important to hear from both sides, not be judgmental—and avoid finger-pointing,” says Anna Katherine Davis, a wealth advisor at Gratus Capital in Atlanta. “Focus on a solution rather than whose fault it is that they’re in this situation.”
Let Clients Decide
Advisors can provide numbers and recommendations, she says, but it’s up to the clients to decide how they’re going to handle their divergent views. In some cases, she adds, a financial therapist can help. “People often don’t realize how intertwined emotions and finances are,” says Davis.
Failure to recognize all sides, no matter how emotional, can be disastrous. “I spent nearly a decade resolving and litigating high-net-worth divorce cases,” says Patrick Kilbane, a partner, wealth advisor and general counsel at Ullmann Wealth Partners in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
To avert such disasters, he recommends “listening carefully to ascertain what each party is trying to accomplish, [then] propose creative solutions.” If that’s not possible, he says, “I ask them if they will let me serve as their informal arbitrator.”
Savvy advisors must also have the humility to realize their own limits. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that I’m not capable of resolving a lot of differences between spouses,” says Casey Pisano, a wealth advisor at Biondo Investment Advisors in Sparta, N.J.
Nevertheless, he says, “When it comes to differences about money, usually it helps to dig a little deeper.”
The core issue often concerns a sense of security, he explains, which may hark back to “some experience in their family where the lack of that [security] caused some pain.” Once it’s out in the open and duly acknowledged, though, “you can make progress and talk about the costs and benefits of different approaches,” Pisano says.
Yet when it comes to resolving other differences between battling spouses, “Don’t,” says Charles Lewis Sizemore of Sizemore Capital Management in Dallas. “You’re an advisor, not a marriage counselor. … You really don’t want to get in the middle of a family squabble.”
Understanding The Emotions
Indeed, planning may have as much to do with emotions as facts and figures. “During the discovery meeting, I ask both partners how they grew up around money, if their family ever discussed money, and their values about money,” says John Fiorito, an advisor at Wealthcare Advisory Partners in New York City.
To that end, he has given clients cards that contain various sayings about life and planning goals, and used a “dream board” to facilitate frank conversations about what they want to achieve with their money. “I continue to ask open-ended questions to learn more about what is important to them and why,” he says.
Rick Polenske, managing director at Robertson Stephens in Boise, Idaho, uses a similar approach. It “helps us come up with strategies that fit a majority of the couple’s needs,” he says. “They will have to go home and iron out the differences, but allowing us to ask the important questions gets them to a point of understanding and compromise.”
It is, to be sure, a process that’s not always quickly resolved. “Within the planning process, we uncover both clients’ authentic goals and triggering fears around money,” explains Hayley Wood Bates, an advisor at Signature Estate & Investment Advisors in Los Angeles. “The result is the true holistic planning that many advisors state they do and rarely achieve.”
Drawing Out All Sides
It’s not unusual for one partner to speak more than the other. Don’t make the mistake of listening exclusively to the one who is more forthcoming, even if that seems easier.
“If you only address the person doing the most talking, if you don’t turn to the other and say, ‘Tell me what you’re most concerned about, what’s important for you to accomplish,’ you may be losing the person who is really going to decide,” cautions Beau Henderson, founder of RichLife Advisors in Gainesville, Ga. “A lot of times, the person who is not talking is the one who will have the final say.”
Not making the effort to draw out all family members, he stresses, is a recipe for disaster. “They won’t feel heard,” says Henderson, adding that that’s why many widows “leave or fire the household advisor when the spouse dies. They’ve never felt heard.”
No one should feel left out of the conversation. “Be inclusive with those who are attending [every meeting], so they are comfortable with the process and the decisions,” says Steven Schacter, a senior vice president and attorney at Forest Hills Financial Group in Chappaqua, N.Y. “And make it clear that any decision can be modified.”
Separate Buckets, One Point Of Agreement
Once all concerns and points of dispute are in the open, Henderson says, it becomes easier to fashion equitable, mutually agreeable solutions. For example, if one spouse has a high desire for security and the other is more of a risk taker, “we can pick spots in their portfolio and retirement plan that are safe and secure, and other appropriate spots that are more aggressive,” he says. “That way both sets of needs get addressed, without having to say one is right and the other wrong.”
Annuities or other fixed-income instruments might satisfy one partner’s need for security and predictability. With that element in place, the other partner becomes free to invest the remaining assets more aggressively.
If that doesn’t work, if problems keep escalating, there is a danger that both parties may give up and do nothing. “That’s the worst thing that can happen,” Henderson says.
But he notes that even the most seemingly intractable differences can usually be resolved by finding at least one point of agreement. “It could just be that the kids are important as beneficiaries, but you can build from there,” he says.
Sometimes the division of assets comes down to strict dollar amounts. “It may be advantageous for each partner to be their own financial decision-maker up to a certain amount of money,” says Christopher Briscoe, vice president and director of financial planning at Girard, a Univest Wealth division, in King of Prussia, Pa. “If each partner has their own small spending account, they can make their own decisions with those buckets. Should an expense go beyond their ‘play’ accounts, there should be a discussion and a joint decision made on how to proceed.”
Considering The Whole Picture
Still, using separate accounts or buckets of assets to address dissimilar financial styles only goes so far. What do you do about assets held jointly?
Greg O’Donnell, CEO and founder of O’Donnell Financial Group in San Rafael, Calif., suggests looking at the combined assets as a whole. “It can be challenging, but the right answer is that amount of risk that will allow them to reach their financial goals,” he says. “As long as we get that risk level applied to the overall portfolio, we have achieved what’s right for each individual and for the aggregate.”
Kimberly Nelson, a financial advisor at Coastal Bridge Advisors in Los Angeles, underscores the importance of the “why” behind the “what.” “Just last week,” she says, “I was meeting with a couple who were discussing what to do with their house. The wife wanted to sell it and move closer to her parents so they could have more family support for their daughters. But the husband loved the home they were in and could not imagine selling.”
Further discussion revealed that the husband had quit his job a year earlier and didn’t want to make any big changes till he’d secured new employment. The wife, on the other hand, was concerned about the expenses of maintaining their current home.
“The compromise I was able to help them strike was that they would stay in the home until the summertime, and if he had not found a new position by then, they would rent the house out and move closer to her parents for a period of time,” Nelson says. “When they felt ready, they could either move back to the house they owned or sell it. [This] was a different solution that both partners could live with.”
Despite the inclusive, well-balanced, holistic ideal, many households designate one person as the family CFO. Advisors say this kind of arrangement has pros and cons.
“With most couples, there is usually a division of labor,” acknowledges Dean Catino, president and co-founder of Monument Wealth Management in Alexandria, Va. “Most couples have developed an understanding of how they work best together, and it’s important that the financial planner has awareness and insight as to how they operate.”
However, it’s vital to the success of any financial plan to include input from both parties. “If you want to build a plan that lasts, you need to start with a strong foundation—and that requires having a trusted process that uncovers a multitude of data points from both partners,” Catino says.
If one partner is expected to take responsibility for all financial decisions, the other may feel resentment—or worse. “Division of responsibilities is a great way to effectively share the responsibilities of family life, but only if the couple communicates effectively and functions as a partnership,” says Kelly Mould, senior vice president at Johnson Financial Group in Racine, Wis., where she is a wealth fiduciary advisor and attorney. “Too often I see situations where one spouse exclusively handles the finances, and when that spouse passes away, the surviving spouse is left clueless as to their financial position, in some cases having no idea what they have or even where to look for important documents.”
It’s an all-too-common phenomenon, agrees Brian Leslie, director of financial planning at Edelman Financial in Omaha, Neb. “The non-CFO spouse is forced into assuming the role, but of course doesn’t have the years of experience to fall back on,” he says. “We want to shorten that learning curve as much as we can beforehand.”
The good news is that, though opposites attract, many distinctions fade over time. According to marriage researchers, no matter how much some couples may disagree, longtime partners often end up reshaping each other’s behavior, financial and otherwise, and become more alike.
“If you think about a young married couple who came from very different backgrounds and family situations, it is logical to assume that they will both relate differently to money,” says Sam Waltman, a senior wealth advisor at Kayne Anderson Rudnick in Los Angeles.
The more years they spend together, however, the more decisions they’ve had to make together. “Most of the couples that I’ve worked with who are now in retirement have learned over a lifetime about the importance of compromise and working together with their spouse on achieving goals,” Waltman says. “They generally do not view their money as ‘mine and yours’ but as ‘ours.’”