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Advising clients who are separating

Matt Pais

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Savage recommends being blunt and impartial when working with divorcing couples.

One time, James Anthony Savage saved the marriage.

The couple consisted of a kind, type-A woman and methodical, type-B man, and they weren’t communicating well. In their time with Savage, an eight-year MDRT member from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and then with a divorce mediator as well, the pair opened up in new ways. Suddenly, the idea that the marriage was over was, in fact, over.

That’s extremely rare, though, and Savage would know. While he focuses mostly on insurance for families and small businesses, he also has met with approximately 50 couples going through divorce in the last five years.

When dealing with marriage breakdowns and constant bickering, it adds up.

It’s largely a result of a year teaching a course educating couples about the financial implications of divorce. This happened as an extension of a marriage course that he and his wife (a clinical psychologist) took during their engagement, which they later taught for six years.

By the way, if you’re wondering: Yes, Savage did see overlap in the two groups. In fact, he encountered at least nine couples in both the marriage and divorce course. “Two of which I pegged right off the bat,” Savage said.

And though Savage is not looking to take on more clients in this position because of the high emotion and negativity that is often involved, he has learned a lot about how advisors can be most successful while working with divorcing couples:

  1. Don’t pick sides. Sometimes that means referring one or both of the clients to another advisor. He always has confidential meetings with the couple as a pair and each person individually, and allows them to speak openly so he can be as informed as possible. The only thing he won’t discuss in those settings? Sharing information if one person asks questions about the other.
  2. That said, don’t be afraid to be frank. In one case, Savage believed that a client’s behavior and determination to fight for every penny was going to harm her children. Savage spoke very bluntly and, unlike his usual policy, took a side in the interest of protecting the children, which helped adjust her perspective. (This couple came to him as part of the divorce course, and both became clients of his afterward.) He asks everyone for permission to have an “adult conversation” as a way to ensure he can say anything he needs to say in this setting. If the client does not want to work with him because of this, he offers to introduce them to another advisor.
  3. Get certified. With divorce certification, you will have a deeper understanding of how current legislation impacts the estate of those going through divorce, and the benefits and roadblocks that come into play socially and financially.
  4. Know that some clients may leave. But Savage recalls many times in which one of the spouses has left as a client but returned several years later. “During high-stress times, they will be upset and think the grass is greener on the other side, then come back,” he said. “The client who left didn’t like me at that moment, but they know exactly where I stand and why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

During high-stress times, they will be upset and think the grass is greener on the other side, then come back.

  1. Recognize the impact it could have on you. Savage acknowledges that working with so many of these clients in a short period of time resulted in bringing some of the ensuing stress into his own home. “We all get a rise in our practice when we help someone save for a down payment on their first home or a beautiful trip; that’s the fun and rewarding part,” he said. “When dealing with marriage breakdowns and constant bickering, it adds up.”
  2. Even with clients not going through divorce, make sure both spouses are fully aware of their finances. This way if the marriage goes wrong or a spouse gets sick or dies, both people not only know their situation but have an established relationship with you and will be more likely to remain a client.

Contact James Anthony Savage at


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