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When married advisors part ways

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Nicole Middendorf worked for 10 years with her husband, another advisor, before the two split in a divorce made more difficult because they were business partners.

The divorce was especially messy because the marriage was so intimately intertwined with the business and the couple had made no contingency plans for anything going wrong.

Middendorf, chief executive of Prosperwell Financial in Plymouth Minn., rebuilt her practice and became a specialist in the financial aspects of divorce, attaining a certified divorce financial analyst designation. She is deeply skeptical about the wisdom of married advisors working together.

“Don’t do it,” Middendorf says.

But to advisors who go ahead anyway, she says, “Make sure that you really have your ducks in a row and that you’ve got a good legal document that will protect you if things go sour.”

And it isn’t just divorce that could affect a couple’s advisory business. What if one spouse wants to work for a different company or leave the profession altogether?

“Just like you do planning for your clients, you need to do planning for yourself,” Middendorf says.

Initial agreements, she says, created with the aid of lawyers, don’t necessarily have to stipulate an equal partnership, but they should work out what happens if the parties split up: how are clients apportioned and what about other assets?

Mark Prendergast and his wife Evelyn Zohlen, both CFPs, have been working together for almost 10 years at Inspired Financial in Huntington Beach, Calif. They have successfully divided responsibilities: She tends to concentrate on the firm’s business development as well as clients’ financial planning, while he, as a CPA, focuses more on tax strategy.

The understanding between the two is that the business itself is Zohlen’s separate property because she entered the marriage with it.

“At this point, the LLC is still titled in her name solely,” Prendergast says.

The two also formulated an estate plan for the business.

But the couple has never specifically discussed what would happen to their practice if they parted ways.

“If I wanted to leave and join another firm, we would handle that in a very respectful way,” Prendergast says.

But in retrospect, it would have been a good idea to address more questions about what would happen if something went wrong, he says.

Prendergast thinks that he and his wife aren’t alone.

“My guess is that 98% of both married and unmarried partners do not have that open discussion as they consummate the relationships,” he says.

That unnerves Middendorf, who says that she still sees too many other couples entering into work partnerships without proper preparation.

“I just went to a conference this week, and one female advisor who was presenting said, ‘I just hired my husband to come in and handle the operations of the business,’ and I was just sitting there, cringing,” Middendorf says. “Too many people rush into things.”

This story is part of a 30-30 series on transitions.

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