According to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, the percentage of women who are the sole or primary breadwinner in a mixed-gender marriage has tripled over the past 50 years, from 5% to 16%. At the same time, couples with equal earnings power (those in which neither partner brings in more than 60%) jumped from 11% to 29%.
But don’t let those numbers fool you. How couples divide household and financial responsibilities has nothing to do with who earns more, the study found.
For advisors who work with married clients, it can be hard to keep up with the ever-shifting power dynamics. Here are a few expert suggestions about how to check your assumptions, tailor communications accordingly, sidestep marital discord, and keep from losing clients.
Who Makes Financial Decisions?
Scott Rick studies marital finances as an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor. He says a couple’s income differences are unlikely to tell you anything about whose preferences carry more weight.
In fact, he says, some research suggests that the partner with more free time is the one who typically becomes the household CFO, while other studies imply that whoever has greater confidence in his or her financial understanding (whether or not that confidence is justified) tends to dominate financial discussions.
But focusing on who is in charge in financial matters may be the wrong tactic. “I don’t believe it’s necessary to clarify the power dynamic of a couple,” says Emily Franco, a financial advisor at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. “You should always assume that both partners are making the decisions.”
Equality And Balance
Consequently, she says, addressing one partner more than the other will only alienate your married clients.
Crystal Cox, a senior vice president at Wealthspire Advisors in Madison, Wis., agrees. “As a woman, I have been in several meetings where the professional only looks at and talks to my husband, even if I’m the one asking the questions,” she says. “This always leaves a bad impression—to the point of my not wanting to work with that person anymore.”
To head off potential offense like this, many advisors start by asking couples simple, open-ended questions such as, “What brought you in today?”
“After one partner answers, I always turn to the other and ask if there is anything he or she would like to add,” says Bob Schneider, senior vice president and director of financial planning at Johnson Financial Group in Milwaukee.
That’s a good way to avert the cardinal error of making someone feel excluded or even bullied.
The advisor’s role, says Joan Malloy, regional president and senior managing director at MAI Capital Management in St. Louis, is to “be a resource for the less financially involved spouse.”
Malloy further notes that it’s rare for both partners to be equally financially engaged. Nevertheless, the quieter spouse undoubtedly has “other talents and makes other contributions,” she says, that should not be discounted.
The Importance Of Listening
When married couples first come to the office of Sam Waltman, a senior wealth advisor at Kayne Anderson Rudnick in Salt Lake City, he asks directly how involved each partner is or wants to be in financial decisions. “In most cases, it’s simply a matter of listening to both partners weigh in,” he says. “If there is discord as a result, that usually means there was discord before I entered the picture.”
Sometimes, he says, one partner is so dominant that the other doesn’t have a chance to be heard. Don’t give in to that, he advises. Besides including both partners in every phone call and email, he says, “Make sure that both partners feel invited and welcome at every meeting.”
If one person seems unusually quiet or uninvolved, look for clues as to why.
“Be attentive and read the body cues of each spouse,” says Ryan Verfurth, a financial planner and advisor at VWG Wealth Management in Vienna, Va. Active listening, he says, can be vital for understanding how each spouse feels about money matters.
If one spouse remains taciturn or passive, he suggests moving on to other topics. You can build rapport by asking about interests, work, hobbies, sports, family or whatever. “The conversation isn’t and shouldn’t always be about finances,” says Verfurth.
Don’t Take Everything At Face Value
Jenny Olson, assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, Ind., studies couples’ financial decisions. She says advisors shouldn’t necessarily believe everything they’re told by the couple.
“Partners often overestimate their own role [in financial decisions]. For example, each partner might say they’re 70% responsible, but we know that’s impossible,” she says.
Olson recommends asking couples how they navigate a broad array of decisions, including investments, retirement planning, daily budgeting, debt management, bill payment, tax preparation, or saving for vacations and higher education expenses. In most marriages, responsibilities are divided.
Of course, couples might not agree about priorities or who is in charge of what. If there is a difference of opinion, “validate both responses,” says Heather Atkins, an advisor at Johnson Brunetti in Wethersfield, Conn. “Work with them on getting to the solution that you, as the advisor, think makes the most sense. Your advising relationship with the couple will grow stronger for it.”
To be sure, this might require becoming more assertive. “It can be a real challenge when goals are going at cross purposes,” says John Ritter, managing partner at Ritter Daniher Financial Advisory, a Bluespring Wealth Partners firm, in Cincinnati. “That’s when we have to put on our communication and counseling hat and help them find a middle ground.”
The point is to facilitate communication and encourage insights, not force anything. “Working with an advisor provides a platform for discussion that otherwise may not be available, especially for the less money-dominant or financially savvy spouse,” says Jeff Mattonelli, a financial advisor at Van Leeuwen & Co. in Princeton, N.J.
Having each partner rank what matters most to them—security, retirement, education funding, travel, etc.—can reveal a great deal about their goals, interests, concerns, risk tolerance and feelings about money, says Jennifer McCarthy, a managing director and trust counsel at Fiduciary Trust International in New York City. Such topics are “less likely to start a fight,” she says, “yet also may [reveal] something they’ve not talked about before.”
David Johnson, a partner at Signature Estate & Investment Advisors in Tysons, Va., has a similar approach. “Ask the clients to take some time and think independently about the following question: ‘What are three things you would like to accomplish in life?’” he says.
Another idea is to learn how big issues were navigated in the past. “We always ask during our initial meeting with prospective clients how financial decisions are made in the family and how disagreements are resolved,” says Patrick Kilbane, a partner, wealth advisor and general counsel at Ullmann Wealth Partners in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
Creating A Welcoming Environment
For free and open discourse, a welcoming environment is essential. Sometimes that means examining your own team.
“It’s imperative your team of advisors is well diversified along gender, age, life experience, etc.,” says Omar Qureshi, a managing partner and investment strategist at Hightower Wealth Advisors in St. Louis. “If all of your advisors look the same, the greater the chance of alienating someone.”
At Qureshi’s firm, two advisors attend every client meeting. This, he says, provides a broader perspective and enables one advisor to watch for nonverbal cues while the other is speaking.
Office decor can play a role, too. “The look and feel of the physical space should be designed to be gender agnostic, which means avoiding the traditional mahogany wood and leather features found in offices of old,” he says.
If all this sounds complicated or intimidating, don’t worry. “As you develop the relationship and get to know the clients better, it will become easier,” say Beth and Eric Sweeney, a husband-and-wife advisory partnership at Sweeney Wealth Management Group of Steward Partners Global Advisory in Boston, by email.
As seen in Financial Advisor