The divorce of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his wife of 25 years, writer MacKenzie Bezos, made headlines for its outsize asset split — she walked away with $38 billion. Perhaps more interesting is that despite the huge dollars at stake the Seattle couple managed to amicably part in 120 days.
As a financial adviser I am struck more by the speed of their divorce than the billions. When young couples divorce assets are far easier to divide. Once you’ve built a decades-long financial life around coupledom things get much more complex.
For instance, if one spouse keeps the family financial adviser, what is the other to do? It’s a real and growing problem. So-called “gray divorce” has doubled since the 1990s, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
As divorce statistics creep upward, financial advisers can end up caught in the middle. Responsibility is now suddenly split between two parties who might not agree or even have the same investment goals. Trust built up over years can feel diminished.
Here’s how I advise my clients if divorce happens to them: First, focus on the matters at hand. Attention should be given to the divorce agreement itself, legal issues, children and property.
Often, separating spouses feel uncomfortable sharing the same adviser. Make sure you are working with a financial adviser you trust. This might mean finding a new one.
Above all, make certain to hire a fiduciary adviser. A fiduciary, to put things plainly, is required by law to act in your interests first, ahead of their own interests or the interests of their firm.
During your search you are likely to meet all kinds of retirement advisers, wealth managers and stockbrokers who will say, “Of course I look out for you!” But that is not the same as being an actual fiduciary.
A stockbroker, for instance, can collect commissions for recommending certain funds over others. Naturally, the fees in those funds are higher to offset the cost of those very commissions.
Those higher fees then begin to eat at your money, eroding your investment returns and leaving you with less money for retirement.
One good way to be sure is to ask “Are you a fiduciary?” Or simply hire a certified financial planner. CFPs are required to meet a fiduciary standard of care to maintain their designation.
War is over
In decades past, high-profile divorces used to be far uglier and drawn-out, as dramatized in the 1989 movie “The War of the Roses,” starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas.
Today, it seems, couples of all financial means end relationships with little drama. “Conscious uncoupling,” in the words of actress Gwyneth Paltrow upon her divorce, has become fashionable. Why fight?
Is that good? Bad? When there are children involved (the Bezos family has four kids) it’s easy to see the amicable route as far better for everyone involved.
Perhaps the “War of the Roses” generation is more comfortable with breaking up than before. Considering the wealth they’ve built up it’s great that less of it is squandered on lawyers and court costs.
But that doesn’t mean once the divorce is final your money is safe. Be cautious when seeking financial advice post-divorce — and remember to ask for a fiduciary.
This article was originally published by MarketWatch on Nov. 26, 2019.