Splitting marital assets equitably is this adviser’s niche

Katie Markowski is a financial adviser who also specializes in helping women navigate the business part of divorce.

She is a certified divorce financial analyst at Watermark Financial in Mount Lebanon, Pa. While most of her time is spent dealing with traditional wealth management issues like designing investment portfolios, retirement planning and tax strategies, she said about 10% to 15% of her business applies specifically to divorce. That’s where emotions are most likely to run high. That’s when people have more trouble making decisions with their brain instead of their heart. That’s how she often finds out a couple will divorce before the other spouse does.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: How awkward is it when a client confides in you that they are planning a divorce, but hasn’t told their spouse yet?

A: It’s hard because divorce is such an emotional thing. I feel a lot of my role is to help them come to logic. Help them to see what’s going to make sense. What’s going to work for both parties because I’m not a big believer in the ‘take them for all they’re worth’ method. I think it has to work for everyone.

But I come into the process at all different stages. Sometimes before people have even told their spouse that they’re thinking of getting divorced. They may come see us first to see how viable they would be financially. And sometimes I come in at the end just to view the marital settlement agreement and make sure that there’s nothing that was overlooked. So, from start to finish, it really varies when and where I get involved.

Q: What led to your interest in seeking certification in this niche of the financial services industry? Why do you mainly work for women in divorces?

A: I came into an already established business that had a focus on divorce. It’s something that a lot of people who are divorcing need — financial advice and financial guidance — but don’t always think to involve a third party other than their attorney to get that advice.

We are a woman-owned business and that appeals to women. I do occasionally act as a mutual representative, or I’ll just sit down with both parties and sort of lay it all out for both of them. But more often than not I’m being an advocate and that’s generally for women.

Q: What are some of the unique aspect of representing women in when judges are trying to determine an equitable distribution of the assets in a divorce?

A: With the older generation, a lot of women were the lesser earning spouse who might have stayed home with the kids. With the younger generation, we’re seeing two-career couples and two-income households. In gray divorces — as they’re called — we do often see the wife being more dependent or less financially sophisticated than the husband.

Q: Which asset is fought over most fiercely? The 401(k)? The house? A business?

A: It depends on the situation. The most common assets we see are the house and the retirement plan, and those are fairly straight forward to split. But when businesses get involved that is a very sticky situation. I recently worked on a divorce where one spouse owned a business that really got hurt by COVID-19. There was a lot of conversation around what the business is actually worth because the last couple of years have been bad. But what are the future prospects for it? How do you value something like that? I think anything outside of the standard bank accounts, the house, the retirement plan, that’s when things start to get sticky. When you’ve got rental properties or stock options through an employer, that’s when you really need some help figuring out what to do.

Q: How would you describe what you do to help determine equitable financial splits for divorcing couples?

A: My job is to examine assets and income streams and then sort of identify the effects — both short-term and long-term — of dividing that property, both in terms of equitability and taxes. And in those situations looking for creative solutions I can propose to maybe address those issues. And then sort of run scenarios of what the future might look like for these divorcing clients. Because the decisions they make during the divorce really affect their financial futures.

Q: How much of your businesses as a financial adviser involves doing divorce financial analysis?

A: It really varies. I could go months without talking to someone about divorce and then it seems like the floodgates will open and I’ll have several meetings in a single week with new divorces or ongoing divorces. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it to me. Things always get put on hold during the holidays. But it doesn’t seem cyclical to me at all.

Q: How has your business been affected by the pandemic?

A: A lot of the divorces I was working on prior to spring 2020 were put on hold for a while. I didn’t see a lot of new business between spring of 2020 and the middle of 2021. I think people were losing jobs. Kids were suddenly home all day from school or from child care. The pandemic was such an emotionally draining situation to begin with I think a lot of people just had to put things on hold. And also access to courts and everything just became more challenging.