Noah Rosenfarb of Freedom Wealth Advisors in Boca Raton, Fla., once had a client who was divorcing a husband she suspected of, among other things, hiding $500,000 in cash. Armed with a warrant, her lawyer searched the man’s place of business and came up empty — until he spotted a faint bulge under a carpet. This, the attorney discovered, was the outline of a trapdoor containing the missing loot.
Cloak-and-dagger attempts to hide assets are rare, and only about 2% of divorcing couples need courts to help them reach settlements. Still, some of the wives Rosenfarb works with don’t know what their husbands are really worth, which makes them feel anxious and even, as they tell him, “stupid.” In this context, providing an accurate picture of a disintegrating couple’s finances is vital to giving divorcing women a sense of security in a period of particular vulnerability, says Goldfarb, whose firm doesn’t take custody of his clients’ assets.
In a period of emotional upheaval it’s especially important for a divorcing woman to have a financial advisor she can trust, say advisors who specialize in such cases. Ideally, a financial advisor is one expert on a support team for a soon-to-be-ex-wife that includes a lawyer, a mortgage broker and a therapist, says Barbara Shapiro, president of HMS Financial in Dedham, Mass.
When it comes to getting a good divorce settlement, sage counsel isn’t worth much without documentation, says San Diego-based forensic accountant Ginita Wall. “Copies of your spouse’s business records” — including reports of bonuses, inheritances, loan documents, wills, deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies — “can be a treasure map showing you where the hidden assets are buried,” she writes in an article called “The 12 Financial Pitfalls of Divorce.”
Oh, and Melanie Johnson of Divorce Financial Solutions says papers that point to a husband’s affair — like hotel bills and jewelry receipts — can get your client reimbursements on “wasted assets.”
Even assets a client doesn’t want — say, her husband’s smelly old bass boat — can be traded for things she’s keener to have, Wall tells FA-IQ.
Taxes and Cat Food
The onus is primarily on divorcing women and their advisors to make sure they’re prepared for life as a single investor.
Tax consequences will affect how an advisor manages money for a divorcee, according to Jack Carstens, managing partner of Headway Financial Group in St. Louis. For example, if the wife needs income and is not yet 59½ years old, "you don’t want to give her too many qualified funds, because she’ll wind up paying penalties to get at those assets.”
Some wives need more practical approaches to the homes once shared with ex-husbands. These houses may provide a sense of continuity for the children especially, but as illiquid assets, they tie up resources where cash flow might be scarce. As Carstens puts it, “You can’t buy groceries with a home.”
Shapiro points out that it’s worth looking at the cost basis of an asset before it’s accepted as part of a divorce settlement. She had one post-divorce client come to her “with a beautiful portfolio of blue chips,” she says. “The husband came from a wealthy family and gave her a gifted portfolio from his grandmother with a cost basis of peanuts. So she has a beautiful portfolio that’s going to choke her. His attorney had pulled a fast one.”
Once they’ve helped female clients in the throes of a breakup understand what their finances might look like going forward, advisors can be of further assistance by helping them understand what these numbers mean in their daily lives.
Meanwhile Johnson, whose Austin, Texas-based firm manages around $56 million, sees divorcing women who are petrified they’ll end up so broke “they’ll be eating cat food.” But just as jarring, she adds, are those who expect to live as they did before, seemingly unaware that two households cost more to run than one. Johnson makes a point of showing these overconfident clients when, in the course of a month, they’re likely to run out of money if they spend as they’re used to spending — a demonstration that brings many of them around to a sober view of their new financial realities.