I recently attended a party hosted by my sponsor, Schiller DuCanto & Fleck, where I met some of the firm’s attorneys I hadn’t met yet. One of them included Senior Partner, Anita Ventrelli, who I ended up driving home because she had taken the train downtown that day, and we live in the same suburb. On our car ride home, we started talking about divorce and finances.
Ventrelli is a wealth of knowledge on the subject and had so much to offer that I asked her if we could do a Q and A that would answer questions I know my readers have. Here is the Q and A:
- JP: Do you often see clients come in and have no idea/no knowledge about money/finances, even paying bills because they never had to worry about it while married? Tell me about that and what advice do you have for them?
AV: Yes, all the time and it is both men and women. Anyone in that position should not be embarrassed or self-conscious about discussing what they did and did not do and what they knew and did not know. Every household has a division of labor, and if their share did not include bill paying or money management and if he or she trusted their spouse to manage that facet of married life, they can’t change that fact, but they can change how they ask questions and handle things for themselves going forward. Admitting that getting into being a bill payer can create anxiety is the first step to conquering the anxiety.
- JP: What are some things a newly separated person should do to prepare for the future in regards to finances?
AV: Any newly separated person should prepare for their future in the financial front by recognizing that doing the work to sort out finances can lead to learning things that might be scary. The same way many people resist doing what it takes to plan for retirement because of the fear of the unknown or fear of running into obstacles they can not overcome, they resist looking at the cash they have to work with to pay their bills, the amounts they spend and how separation changes what they are used to. Anyone who has not taken charge of his or her own bill paying should figure out how they are going to do that with the first step consisting of listing all their bills together with the monthly payments and due dates. Next is charting what cash there is to make payments and when they get that cash. Anyone who now has to pay their spouse support of any kind should chart out how that will change what he or she will have to use to pay his or her own bills. After that, listing assets and debts is the next step. Anyone who gets that far stands prepared to work with their lawyer, lifestyle expert or financial planner to think about whether or not he or she needs to seek support from the their spouse or how to move past separation into divorce.
- JP: Have you ever seen any cases that you felt turned out really unfair in regards to the settlement?
AV: Yes, I have seen cases after the fact where I thought the settlement turned out unfairly. When people have come to me to see what could be done to remedy these kinds of cases, each one was a case where the side who ended up on the lighter side of what was fair was the side that either held their lawyer back on the investigation of the nature and value of assets because they thought it was not worth it to spend the money, the side that abdicated making decisions and put their lawyer in the position of deciding for them (this is different than getting advice and making your own decision) or the side that let their spouse intimidate them from pursuing their rights because of promises that spouse was not willing to put into writing. Anytime someone makes a promise that they won’t put into writing, it is not a promise worth giving something up to get.
- JP: If two people who were about to get married were sitting in your office asking for your advice financially, what tips would you give them?
AV: Tell each other how you run your financial life, leave nothing out. If you have debt you are embarrassed about, talk about it. Each person should also talk to his or her own family law attorney to get educated on how property and income would be treated on divorce so that each can make his or her own decisions about what they might want to do with their property or whether or not a premarital agreement is for them. After that, talk about how you will handle where income gets deposited, who will pay the bills, how the bills will be paid. Talk about how well each of you tolerates risk, the kinds of investments that appeal to each of you (with a financial advisor if you can), whether or not one of you would stop or reduce working if you have children, views on saving for college, views on assisting parents in their later years and if you have set ideas on what retirement looks like. In other words, talk about the life you want for yourselves as a couple, but also recognize that what you talk about is just that, talk. People change their minds about the direction they want to take in life and in careers and making sure you have an environment between you where it is OK to talk about changes you want is important to preventing resentment from building up. Talk about whether or not each of you expects to use money or property you had before the marriage during the marriage. Better to know before you get married than to be surprised afterward that there is disconnect on how you each view the financial side of marriage.
5. JP: Want to add anything else in regards to divorce, money and finances?
AV: Professionals should not assume that because they are professionals in one field, they can skimp on learning what a good family law attorney can teach them. Every client comes into the process with assumptions that, whether consciously or subconsciously, influence how they process advice they get. Being able to identify and tell the lawyer what you know about divorce, how it works and what you think will drive the outcomes will open up your lawyer’s ability to correct any misconceptions that could be throwing off your decision-making. Lawyers who communicate well know to ask what underlies a decision before just acting on what the client wants. They are also not afraid to tell a client when he or she is giving orders instead of seeking advice. When you use a lawyer for advice, tell them your goals, listen to the ways they develop on how to achieve the goals and they make decisions based on your own personal risk tolerance and be prepared to take responsibility for your choices. Don’t be afraid to go back and say you changed your mind on what is most important to you. Good lawyers want to serve their clients and knowing what they want and why they want it makes that easier to do and clients who participate in that part of the process develop trust in their lawyers that make the decisions that sometimes need to be made under pressure easier to make.
Anita Ventrelli is a Senior Partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck. Since 1997, she has been a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. In 2003, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin named her one of “40 Attorneys Under 40 Illinois Attorneys to Watch..” Ventrelli is also On the Board and Faculty of the American Bar Association/National Institute of Trial Advocacy Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute. Learn more: http://www.sdflaw.com/attorneys/aventrelli/