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Specialist interview: Financial planning for divorce

Fiona Sharp is a senior adviser at Almary Green, having previously co-founded Finance4Women in Cambridge. Here, she talks to Fiona Bond for ABR about the practicalities of specialising in financial planning for divorce

Adviser Business Review: How did you come to specialise in divorce work?

Fiona Sharp: When my colleagues and I founded Finance4Women divorce wasn’t an area that I set out to specialise in – it was circumstances that saw it become a huge part of what I do. Finance4Women was an all-female business operating in Cambridge. The city had well established male adviser firms so we knew creating name awareness would help us stand out as a new firm. As a result, we started to attract female divorce client referrals from lawyers. I think the fact we were women made a difference, simply because as lot of the clients we saw had never dealt with the finances and perhaps felt a bit more comfortable talking to us. That’s not to say that there aren’t great male advisers out there who are in touch with their feminine side!

After a while, I made the decision to apply for the Resolution (formally Family Law Society) IFA Specialist Accreditation, which opened a lot of doors for me. The Accreditation isn’t that common among advisers, so it was definitely a niche. Divorce isn’t an area that necessarily appeals to some; it can take a long time to work through a case, sometimes between two to three years, and the emotional impact of that can be huge. You see people at their angriest and most vulnerable and it’s not easy. The aim is to help people get through their divorce as amicably as possible, and make sure they fully understand the financial implications of their agreed settlement.

ABR: How would you describe a typical client?

FS: There is no typical client! My clients are split; I have a core of long-term financial planning clients who’ve been with me for 20 years and with whom I have a very special relationship. However, 95% of all new clients come to me for specialist divorce planning and their ages and circumstances vary greatly. That said, I have noticed a rise in divorce among the retired generations, partly as a result of longer life expectancy – many couples realise they’ve grown apart and want to spend the latter stages of their life enjoying new experiences.

My work is split between either acting as an adviser for one half of the couple or acting as a neutral figure explaining the financial implications of divorce to both parties– the impact on taxes, mortgages, pensions and so forth. There is a lot of complex pension work. If I am acting as a neutral adviser, I would not normally take on either party as a client as that could call my neutrality into question. However, there are occasions when I may take on a client post divorce if I am asked to do so by both sets of lawyers and everyone is in agreement.

From time to time, I advise at the pure implementation stage, where advice is needed regarding Pension Sharing Orders or investment transfers.

ABR: How many clients do you have?

FS: It’s very difficult to ascertain a firm number, as divorce work means some clients work on a purely transactional basis, and then I don’t see them again. I’ve never been someone to build client numbers for the sake of it and I don’t consider the number of clients I have to be a measure of success. For me, it boils down to what someone needs and in some instances, they may not require the full financial planning service.

If I take on too many review clients, I will no longer have the capacity to take on new divorcing clients, which is where my strength lies. Some clients take a review service for two or three years post divorce to cement their understanding of their new financial situation. After that, when they are confident, they may turn the service off, leaving me some space for new work.

ABR: How do you charge for transactional divorce work?

FS: It really depends on the client’s circumstances, and each piece of work is quoted on an individual basis. Of course, we have a standard client agreement but there are some things that just don’t work well on that standard basis when it comes to divorcing (and probably other specialist advice market) clients. It’s better to quote on a transparent, bespoke basis.

For some pieces of work, I know approximately how long it will take and therefore I will always quote in advance so clients know my costs. Occasionally, clients purely pay as they go as they only need advice on certain parts of their settlement. Either way, no-one gets a bill that they are not expecting or have not agreed in advance, even if it does sometimes take a while to get to an invoicing stage! Divorce isn’t standard by any stretch of the imagination but it’s certainly interesting.

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