As a financial advisor and RIA owner with a practice centered on divorced and divorcing women, fighting for the rights of women is just a part of a larger fight for inclusiveness that encompasses my approach to financial literacy, impact investing and advocacy for special needs children and adults.
For me, the biggest obstacle to working with women in the throes of divorce is financial illiteracy—or rather, the fear of being perceived as financially illiterate.
Financial literacy isn’t something we just take in with the air we breathe. It requires time, effort and training—something even experienced, hands-on business owners will cheerfully admit is the primary reason for engaging a financial advisor in the first place. They might know a stock from a bond and know a bit about trusts and family governance, but they want help finding personalized financial plans and solid investment programs that match their lifestyle and legacy goals.
People in the midst of a marital breakdown feel overwhelmed and vulnerable—especially if their role in the marriage was mainly as “homemaker” rather than “breadwinner.” Some women in this position, frequently not the partner pushing for divorce, feel anxious, angry, sad, confused and too distraught to focus on things like money. To the extent finances enter the picture, it’s typically to conjure the specter of being left financially disadvantaged after the breakup becomes official.
It’s a Question of Confidence
I work to replace those negative emotions with a reality-based understanding of their finances now and over time. I work to educate them, starting with the premise that there’s no such thing as a dumb question. I start to see their confidence return as they learn that the pieces they need are in place and only need rearranging. I help too by understanding the ins and outs of corporate compensation, so I can provide insight on equitable settlements.
It’s incredibly gratifying to see their self-belief blossom.
That said, I can certainly empathize with lapses in confidence. My son is approaching adulthood as a person with special needs. He has Down syndrome. Responding to friends who ask how Dylan has impacted my life, I’ll often say, “How hasn’t he changed it?” It’s like entering a new realm of being or, like Dorothy, suddenly inhabiting a country I’d never before visited or even thought about. I started out in utter panic, dogged by discomfort and fear, and had, literally, to build my courage from the ground up. My patience, maybe never a strong suit, became a noticeable trait.
Dylan made me a better person, but more important, he gave me a sense of mission, which took shape in several ways. When my son was still young, his father and I divorced, and I set out to found my own independent wealth management practice for women touched by divorce.
I was raising a special needs child, undergoing the demise of my marriage and starting a business all at once. But, as I muscled through, I came to see I was working to level playing fields that absolutely needed leveling. Just as clients come to me for help securing an equitable division of assets built up in their married lives, my son needed support, education and attention to level the field for him.
Milestones, and Pulling Back
So, within a year of launching my independent practice, I co-founded the IDEAL School of Manhattan. The school provides K-12 instruction with small classes; a high ratio of teachers to students; and a commitment to academic success, social justice and diversity.
Last year, I had the pleasure of watching my son participate in a graduation ceremony and receive his certificate of completion from the IDEAL School. I can’t express my pride in him.
I also can’t express how important it is for us—all of us—to unwind from the stress of our daily lives and special circumstances.
Personally, I strive to find the balance between, on one hand, being supportive and professional with, on the other hand, feeling like their very lifeline. The lines are always blurry, and sometimes they get crossed, and when I’m “on,” I simply give it my all. But I’ve also learned to leave it all at the office when I’m home. There, unless it’s an emergency, I’m essentially unplugged.
It’s not just feeling overwhelmed that raises flags. Those of us who deal in divorce are prone to “compassion fatigue,” growing numb to cases that aren’t in comparison particularly extreme. When that rears its head in my life, I know it’s time to take a healthy step back and spend a few days recharging—for me, my clients and my family.
Michelle Smith is a Divorce Financial Specialist, and founder and CEO of Source Financial Advisors and Wife2CFO in New York.