By Katherine Miller
“It’s never just about the money.” That is a common phrase amongst professionals who work with people in conflict. Money is certainly a critical piece of many of not most negotiations of any kind and certainly this is true in divorces. Of course, there are situations where it’s obvious to anyone and everyone that more than just dollars and cents are involved. A surprising number of people come into the negotiation of their own divorces thinking and saying that it’s “just a business deal” by the time they make the decision to divorce.
Marriage is a complex entwinement of a personal and intimate relationship; a financial partnership and a legal relationship. Each thread of this intricate network has its own nuanced associations. When people decide to divorce, they face disentangling on many levels some of which are simpler than others. Often it is impossible to have enough objectivity about one’s own situation to navigate effectively to this new separated relationship.
My experience over the years has taught me that it’s almost never “just” a deal. I think about the inverse: years ago my husband and I lived together before we married. We each had two children from our previous marriages living with us, we had a joint bank account and we owned a house together. As our wedding date approached, I became increasingly worried. Our relationship was working. Our family although non-traditional was functioning well. Our situation was good. Why were we changing it? After we married, I did feel an emotional shift in each of us toward our commitment to one another. Nothing else changed.
Money is powerful in our culture. It is one of the ways in which we learn to judge ourselves and others. It is a powerful way we assess success – our own, our friends and neighbors and our family. It is associated with power and privilege. And on a more mundane level . . . it pays the bills.
Many divorces are attributed to conflicts around money. Spending and earning patterns develop over the course of a marriage that are often uncomfortable – critically so – for one or both members of the couple. Money is sometimes used as a means of control in the relationship in small or big ways. Spouses may not have equal access to or information about the assets of the marital partnership.
As a family lawyer, I have years of experience dealing with money issues in divorce. I have exposure and access to information about taxes, asset management, cash flow, mortgages and a myriad of other financial issues that relate to people’s lives. I have software that can help analyze the assets and income of a marriage and create a variety of scenarios for the participants to consider. I use all these capabilities (as do my colleagues) to help my clients find the best solution to their situation. Collaborative Clients sometimes ask me why hire a neutral financial expert when all these resources are available in my office. Here is what I say:
I am not an expert nor [in Collaborative matters] am I neutral.
My experience has shown me that introducing a neutral expert around money is a powerful tool to help people be less reactive to each other and more mutually focused on solving the economic disentanglement they face. I think this is true for a few reasons.
- The neutral is an expert.
- The neutral is pragmatic and not judgmental.
- The neutral is focused on finding solutions that work for both people.
- The neutral is focused on the money not the meaning of money.
The neutral is an expert. Frequently, spouses who choose divorce have argued extensively about money. These arguments are framed in the context of the larger relationship and are often about who is right and who is wrong. The neutral is not engaged in that battle. In addition, the neutral becomes an expert on the family finances and is trusted by both. The neutral’s expertise helps level the playing field and both spouses feel informed and supported in the decision-making process.
The neutral looks at the finances without judgment. Whatever is presented is the situation we work with. There are no criticisms or recriminations for previous decisions or behavior. People can relax because they will not be judged.
The neutral is working with the Collaborative team to find solutions for both people. The neutral is not primarily focused on one person with the other in the background.
The neutral is focused on meeting the expenses of the family and created financial security for them. The neutral is not focused on the intrigue and meaning of money for the individuals in other regards. This focus permits people to concentrate on making a plan that makes sense for them and that will allow them to move forward in their lives in an orderly and safe way.
The financial neutral adds real value to the Collaborative team and, in my experience, almost always shortens and simplifies the negotiation.