When Clients are on the Verge of Divorce

Beverly Flaxington

Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues.  To submit yours, email us here.

Advisor Perspectives welcomes guest contributions. The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of Advisor Perspectives.


Dear Bev,

What do you do when you are pretty sure your clients are on the verge of divorce? I have two situations right now with couples who I’ve worked with for years. Both sets have confided to me they are planning to split. I don’t want to side with either spouse, but I don’t want to lose all of the assets either! In both cases I work closely with the wife and the husband and I like both of them very much. I know how acrimonious it can get.

Tim W., Chicago IL

Dear Tim,

This is one of an advisor’s worst fears – choose a side and you lose, choose neither side and you still lose!

You need to consult with your state and find out your legal obligations. But from the human side, here a few things to think about.

In the cases you cited, where people have confided in you, have both of them talked with you? In other words, do both people know there are plans underway or has only one person confided in you and the other person is going to be in for a surprise? If one has confided and this is a secret, you do have an obligation to bring the other spouse into the picture so that you cannot be accused of deceit. If the divorce is in the open, you must decide whether you want to work with either spouse or both, or if you want to refer them to someone else and act as the independent provider of financial information. This is really a personal decision (again, unless state law mandates otherwise!) as to what type of involvement you’d like to have.

Anyone who has been through a divorce, or knows someone who has, recognizes this is an incredibly emotionally charged event. You need to know your own strengths and limitations going into the situation and not assume a position by default. Knowing the odds are that some of your clients will get divorced at some point, address this at the outset with clients in your initial engagement letter – a “pre-nup” if you will – that spells out how the advisor will act with the clients in the event of a divorce. While difficult to talk about, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Just like you would advise a will and life insurance for security for your clients, you should also prepare for everything at the beginning of the relationship with a new client planning for difficult times. If you spell it out by capturing possible eventualities in an engagement letter when you first work with clients, the fewer headaches you will have when disaster strikes!

Dear Bev,

I work in a large financial services firm but on my small team, I have a staff member that I just don’t like. I know it isn’t fair and it isn’t right, but I can’t stand this person! Something about this person’s communication style and the way she approaches me on things, grates on my nerves. What do you do when you just don’t like a colleague? I have to work closely with this person every day. I want to like them!

Rose M., Ithaca, NY

Dear Rose,

As long as I’ve been studying human behavior and writing about understanding others, I still haven’t found the secret to liking everyone with whom we work with, or even live! It’s impossible, given the differences we have in communication style, values, work ethic, background, etc. 

Does liking this person actually impact either of your abilities to get the job done? Are responsibilities not getting met? Clients not being attended to? Projects that are languishing? If your reaction to this person is rendering either of you ineffective, it’s very important to figure out – despite your feelings – how to work with them. But if it isn’t impacting either of your effectiveness, let’s explore why you feel like you have to like someone you work with. You are working together, not raising a family!

I always look at impact. Is my reaction to the person (or theirs to me) impacting any ability to succeed and perform the job? If it isn’t, don’t waste negative emotions reacting to the person or wishing they were different. Just do what you need to do, and focus on other things. If it is impacting it, you need to explore why and consider how you could change in response to them. Learn to understand your own triggers. There are people and behaviors that are irritating to each of us, but they are different. There is no one definition of “the difficult person;” it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. Watch your own triggers. Figure out what sets you off and practice new ways to responding. We want the person out there to change, but the only power we really have is in changing our inner experiences and outer results.

Beverly Flaxington co-founded The Collaborative, a consulting firm devoted to business building for the financial services industry in 1995; in 2008 she co-founded Advisors Trusted Advisor to offer dedicated practice management resources to advisors, planners and wealth managers.  She is currently an adjunct professor at Suffolk University teaching undergraduate students Leadership & Social Responsibility. Beverly is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst (CPBA) and Certified Professional Values Analyst (CPVA).

She has spent over 25 years in the investment industry and has been featured in Selling Power Magazine and quoted in hundreds of media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC.com, Investment News and Solutions Magazine for the FPA. She speaks frequently at investment industry conferences and is a speaker for the CFA Institute.

Read more articles by Beverly Flaxington