News of Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’ divorce has grabbed a lot of headlines lately. The couple’s celebrity breakup, colored by threats of blackmail, supposedly salacious photos and adultery, belies the fact that given the astronomical wealth of the Amazon CEO, divvying up such a large estate involves a great deal of complexity.
If you’re looking down the barrel of a high-asset divorce, there are several key lessons to glean from this high-profile breakup. What’s more, these lessons apply to the vast majority of divorcing couples.
Develop A ‘Divorce Story’
As hard as it may be to agree on anything with a feuding, soon-to-be ex-spouse, there really is value in making sure you have an agreed-upon narrative in place. Early on, the Bezoses released a joint statement on Twitter. The couple publicly announced their decision to divorce and continue their “shared lives as friends.”
Privately, there may have been plenty of teeth gnashing going on behind the scenes. But when you air your dirty laundry, you force your friends and family to choose sides. And when children are involved, having a “divorce story” becomes even more important. A joint announcement with a unified vision really sets the tone for the divorce process. You might disagree on the details, but you can probably find common ground on the guiding principles.
It’s so important to get off on the right foot as things can quickly spiral out of control if you make rash, emotional decisions — especially if you air those grievances publicly. If you’re not careful, those statements could come back to haunt you when your spouse digs in their heels during settlement negotiations and focuses on “righting your wrongs.”
I’ve seen it time and time again. One spouse bad mouths the other, and before you know it, they’re in the throes of litigation. Divorce costs can snowball quickly from there. In fact, I’ve had numerous high-asset divorce cases where clients spent millions of dollars litigating over several years. If you don’t have significant assets, you may never be able to recover from seven-figure divorce costs.
Expect Bumps In The Road
One day after the Twitter announcement, the National Enquirer published an exposé of Jeff Bezos’ affair. Pack journalism being what it is, nearly every news outlet in the country soon followed suit with coverage. There are bumps in a divorce. There are hills. And then there are mountains.
Major news outlets probably won’t be exposing your divorce details to the world because, well, you’re not Jeff Bezos. But you will probably encounter bumps, hills and mountains of your own. The same problems and issues that led to your divorce will likely be the same things that stand in the way of finalizing your divorce. For instance, perhaps you weren’t involved in managing the family finances and have a lingering concern about hidden assets or feel in the dark about your expenses.
Regardless of the issues, understand that any impediment is not insurmountable. You need to decide what’s truly important to you, remain calm and rely on your support system to help you through those inevitable rough patches.
You Need A Team To Help You
Let’s face it — divorce is a time of unprecedented change. Unless you’ve been through a divorce already, you’ll be making major financial and parenting decisions without the benefit of any personal relevant experience to guide you.
You may not have the same resources as Jeff Bezos, but you still need a team to help you navigate the legal, financial and emotional complexities of divorce.
Not all assets are created equal. Some are ticking time bombs with significant future tax liabilities. Maybe your spouse has executive compensation, stock options or restricted stock units that need to be divided. What’s the value of the pension? Can you afford to keep the house? There are myriad financial issues that need to be addressed.
With so much on the line, now is not the time to be penny wise and pound foolish. At a minimum, consider working with a divorce attorney, a certified divorce financial analyst, and a therapist or divorce coach.
Keep It Amicable
No matter how badly you have been wronged, and as hard as it may be, remaining relatively friendly (or at least restrained) is the best way to go through a divorce. On the surface, it appears that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos decided to pursue an amicable and cooperative divorce. They deserve kudos, because this is easier said than done. When both parties focus on their divorce as a problem to solve instead of a battle to be won, it helps minimize the financial and emotional ripple effects that could accompany more adversarial proceedings.
Consider mediation or collaborative divorce. After all, it’s awfully hard to remain amicable during protracted litigation. Collaborative divorce is a team approach. Both spouses have their own collaborative attorney and divorce coach (mental health professional). A neutral financial specialist is also involved. All members of the collaborative team make a commitment not to go to court, so everyone’s interests are aligned on reaching an agreement both parties can live with.
The stakes are high when wealthy couples divorce. By understanding and implementing these key lessons, you will be well equipped to reach an amicable resolution in the least destructive manner possible. And that’s a goal worth shooting for!