Best practices for advising couples

Of the 60 million married couples in the US, it’s unlikely that any fell in love over a shared investment risk tolerance. It’s far more likely that at least some money conversations are tense, unproductive, stressful or unfold with the grace of two bulls in a china shop. Couples meeting with an advisor for the first time may expect them to untangle years of financial disagreements and emotional baggage, in addition to developing a long-term investment strategy. It’s no wonder, then, why advisors sometimes feel more like a marriage therapist than a financial advisor.

The way advisors work with married couples requires a little more finesse and attention than working with someone one-on-one. In the past, advisors typically had discussions with one spouse, the man. At the time, spousal roles and responsibilities were often clearly delineated and financial decision-making was the husband’s domain. Today, couples are more likely to share responsibilities and want to make decisions together. Thus, advisors need to engage with both spouses and create an environment that positions the couple for success.

Use the following best practices to elevate the experience for your married clients.

Best Practice #1: Engage with both partners. Always.

The first step to foster a balanced relationship with a couple is, oddly, treating them as individuals. These suggestions may appear small but, when only one spouse receives the communications, the other may notice, and those small slights may grow into bigger dissatisfactions over time.

  • Require both people in the relationship to attend all meetings.
  • Address mailed materials to both spouses.
  • Include both email addresses on emails, newsletters or other correspondence.
  • Have each spouse fill out their own pre-work survey or questionnaires. These serve a dual purpose, you’ll get an understanding of each individual’s goals and beliefs about money and help you identify potential areas where conflicts may arise.
  • Include both partners in the conversation. Many male advisors have fallen into the trap of focusing their attention on the male client only to find out that the female client controls the money decisions. If she feels left out of the conversation, you can bet she’s considering finding another advisor.

Best Practice #2: Level the playing field.

Recently, a colleague told me about the first meeting she and her husband had with their financial advisor. Although she works in financial services, her husband tends to dominate investing conversations. Their advisor started the meeting by saying, “You are both breadwinners, you both contribute to your financial future, and you both need to feel confident about and involved in making the decisions.” This statement simultaneously empowered my colleague and gently reminded her husband that this was a joint venture. Here are three tips for involving both spouses:

  • Tee up couples to feel equally responsible for shaping and contributing to their financial goals.
  • In some instances, one spouse will clearly be the sole decision-maker and the arrangement works for them. However, be sure to continually connect with the other spouse so they feel informed and part of the dialogue. If they feel a connection to you, it may be more likely their assets remain with you if the decision-maker passes away.
  • Recognize that having an interest and wanting involvement are two different things. Often, one spouse demonstrates more interest in the nitty gritty investment details and it’s easy to engage with that person and lose track of the person who wants to be involved, but isn’t as enthusiastic about the subject matter.

Best Practice #3: Foster balanced communication.

Communicating with both spouses at the same time brings its own set of challenges. Achieving success may require using all the communication strategies in your arsenal.

  • Active listening in a small group is critical to making sure each person feels heard and understood. Use all the tips and tools like eye contact, nodding, mirroring their tone,etc.
  • Notice who responds to your questions with facts and who tells stories. Usually, but not always, men respond with factual communication whereas women favor the connection that stories convey. Mixing factual information with stories (even your own story) can help bridge a gap in communication styles.
  • In some cases, one spouse may monopolize the conversation with their ideas and questions. If this happens, draw the quieter spouse into the conversation with direct open-ended questions as a way to encourage their involvement.
  • Pay attention to body language. Non-verbal communication speaks volumes about a person’s agreement. Watch for crossed arms, eye rolling, dirty looks, sighing, non-existent eye contact, pursed lips or shrugs that replace actual answers. Take a moment to pause and ask an open- ended question that gives them an opportunity to express what’s on their mind.

Best Practice #4: Instill confidence to continue the dialogue.

For many couples, the ability to openly discuss their hopes, fears and goals about their financial future can bring them closer to each other. What’s more, being able to envision that future can instill a sense of excitement, security and empowerment. Your clients will recognize and appreciate the role that you play in helping them achieve their goals both financially and emotionally.

  • Give them a question or two to discuss on the drive home. It can be innocuous such as, “What do you want to do with your time each day in retirement?” or “Where should we take our first post-retirement trip?”
  • Talking about money in your office is one thing and having that dialogue at home, on a regular basis, is another. Encourage dialogue between spouses in-between meetings and assign homework-style conversations for them to complete. Simply feeling confident to have financial conversations as part of everyday interactions can feel like a big win for many couples.

Ultimately, on the drive home your clients will talk about one thing: you. Their feelings about you and how you treated both of them may override your portfolio suggestions. By incorporating these best practices you position yourself as a true partner to both of them and demonstrate a strong commitment to their success.

What are other best practices for working with married clients?

This post was originally published in June 2016.

The views expressed in this article are only those of Rob Richardson and are not necessarily the views of Franklin Templeton Investments and should not be considered investment advice or recommendations to invest in any security or adopt any investment strategy.

AUTHOR

Rob Richardson

Rob Richardson, CIMA®
Senior Vice President
Practice Management Spokesperson

LOCATION: San Mateo, California, USA
TENURE: 1995

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