Working with a number of high-net-worth divorce clients over the years has taught us the importance of bringing financial experts into a divorce. High-net-worth clients have more opportunities to invest and a greater possible range of asset types. When those clients try to negotiate on their own to reach a divorce settlement, they may not understand everything about the assets they have, and may not know how they could or should affect the decree.
We were reminded of the value of a financial professional in a recent Texas Collaborative Divorce blog article from Keith Powell, an Austin-based Certified Divorce Financial Analyst who specializes in working with women who are going through a divorce. In his article, he discusses three overlooked elements of a couple’s financial picture that could impact divorce.
The first has to do with term life insurance. As Powell explains:
Because term policies don’t have any cash value, I’ve seen them completely ignored during the divorce settlement and if they are addressed, the decree might say that the insured is ‘required’ to keep their spouse as the beneficiary. However, a piece of paper that requires someone do something doesn’t actually keep them from doing it. The high-income spouse might remarry down the road and five years from now find themselves in an insurance review with their new spouse where they find out the old spouse is still listed as the beneficiary. Forgetting why that was the case, or that they are ‘required’ to leave it that way, they change the beneficiary, and nobody finds about it until policy holder passes away.
Powell also identifies tax issues associated with 401k accounts. He compares a house with $200,000 of equity with a 401k account worth $200,000. The income taxes associated with 401k withdrawals means that they don’t function in the same way that other assets do, and that should be factored into the asset distribution process in a divorce. However, for couples negotiating one themselves, this might not even register as an issue – they might just look at the $200k values for each assets and regard them as equal.
He also looks at the value of a pension. Depending on when a person started work, some of the pension might be separate property and some of it might be community property. Also, as he notes:
Every participant who is enrolled in a pension gets a statement showing them what dollar amount they could access if they cashed in their pension. This dollar value is NOT the value of the pension. It’s simply their walk-away value. A professional pension valuation would need to be done in order to calculate what the actual value, in today’s dollars, is.
Powell writes from a collaborative perspective, and we can extol collaborative law’s virtues in help high-net-worth divorce couples come to creative solutions in dividing large and complex estates.
A high-net-worth individual does need to be prepared for litigation, though, in case a divorce case goes down that route. And it’s definitely possible for those cases to enter some sort of negotiation to avoid the courtroom. But having both a lawyer and a financial professional with divorce experience will help you gather all the knowledge you need about your estate, and better determine how to best divide it.