Two years ago, when Pamela Savino was in marriage counseling, she had a realization: She and her husband of nearly 20 years had not only grown apart, they were headed for divorce.
That knowledge was both liberating and frightening for Savino. She sensed this was an opportunity to grow in her own authentic direction, but she also knew she would face some challenges. For most of her adult life, Savino, now 45, had focused on the care of their four children while her husband managed the household finances. If she divorced, the balance would shift — she would have to make her own financial choices.
Feeling uncertain about taking the financial reins isn’t uncommon, even among high-net-worth women, says Steph Wagner, director of women and wealth, and senior wealth strategist at Northern Trust. “It isn’t about how much is in your bank account,” Wagner says, “it’s knowing that your former partner and advocate can no longer support you in the same way.”
But Savino was determined not to let fear of the unknown drive her divorce, and that positive attitude helped shape an ultimately successful split. In the months that followed, she navigated a complex set of challenges and logistics, kept things stable for her four kids, learned to lean into the family's finances and ultimately found a new career and purpose in her life. Here’s how she did it.
Assembling the Team
In the interest of the best possible outcome for their family, Savino and her husband chose a collaborative divorce process, in which the couple signs a contract to arrive at an out-of-court settlement. “I think society conditions people to view divorce as a failure or an end,” Savino says. “We were very committed to doing this a new way and shattering old paradigms associated with divorce.”
Depending on each situation, a collaborative divorce typically relies on a team of professionals that may include a lawyer, a financial advisor and an accountant to help the couple reach a settlement. If the couple decides to go to court instead, the collaborative teams are disbanded and the couple must start from scratch — so there’s a strong incentive to reach a resolution.
As she began meeting with different professionals, Savino realized how important trust was. “After each meeting I asked myself: ‘Am I comfortable being vulnerable with this person and sharing the necessary details about my life?’ ”
Savino chose to work with a collaborative team — comprised of a lawyer, a financial neutral and a divorce coach — as well as a personal team of professionals. This included an estate planner, tax accountant and a financial advisor. With these teams in place, Savino felt more confident. “I realized that I didn’t have to become the expert on every topic. My job was to find the experts. Once I accepted that, I felt like I was surrounded by a team of professionals who had my back.”
Preparing for Independence
When women talk about navigating a successful divorce, the phrase “Knowledge is power” often comes up. That knowledge, says Wagner, starts when you gather all the financial documents that might be relevant to your divorce. You need as much information as you can find about different assets, investments, accounts, properties, income — as well as estate documents like wills and trusts — to better understand your financial situation, and how certain issues might affect the divorce settlement.
And remember, Wagner says: You have a team who can help explain any details that are unclear, and put them in their proper context for the divorce process.
Also crucial: “Make sure you have a transition plan and cash, or access to cash,” Wagner says. You need liquidity to cover your expenses during the initial separation, when you may not yet be receiving temporary support.
For Savino, hammering out all the details of these financial and logistical decisions was mentally and emotionally draining. “It was tempting to say, ‘That can wait until later,’ ” she says. “But I knew it was important to make as many decisions as possible while we still had the resources of the financial team in place.”
The couple agreed to sell their home, and they chose joint custody for the children, who now spend every other weekend at their father’s house, in the same town where Savino lives. Splitting assets and future income entailed a lengthy negotiation — and required Savino to focus on the bigger picture rather than her own personal gain: “I had to remember that the goal was to get through the process, not to dig my heels in and optimize my position.”
This is where input from a financial advisor is crucial, says Wagner. “Too often people only focus on getting their share of the entire pie, rather than the slices that can best help them accomplish their goals in the future,” she says. Tax and financial professionals also can advise you on the ramifications of acquiring or giving up certain assets.
With so many details to work out, women often forget that child-related expenses, as well as their own, are likely to shift over time, Wagner says. The Savinos’ lawyers created a checklist of every potential expense that might arise, from college to camps, and even school supplies. Those receiving alimony and/or child support also need to factor life insurance into their plans, in case their ex-spouse dies early.
For all their financial acumen, the Savinos had never had an estate plan. So as soon as their funds were divided, Pamela Savino’s estate planner urged her to create a comprehensive package that included a will, power of attorney and health care directive.
Her financial advisor, meanwhile, projected scenarios for funding retirement. Savino consolidated her IRAs and other accounts with a single firm, and she continues to meet with her advisor regularly to discuss market performance and asset allocation. “Now I can see everything at a glance,” she says. “A lot of my fears have been allayed.”
Focusing on the Positive
While Savino didn’t struggle with dividing the finances, adjusting to the custody arrangement was a challenge. “Just getting used to the new schedule was hard,” she recalls. “For the first time, I wasn’t sharing 100% of my kids’ experiences.”
With the help of a therapist, she learned to see things from a different perspective. “I asked myself if my kids were safe, happy and loved. When I answered ‘yes’ to all those questions, it helped me to release and say, ‘Yes, this is O.K.’ ”
Savino also began to see the positives of having time to herself as she reached out to others in her community who had been through similar transitions.
Having this support network also inspired Savino to explore another path. Not long after her divorce was finalized, she started her own business as a life coach. “I did a lot of work in this process and I was continually coaching myself,” she says, “I wanted to use that work for a greater good.”
Wagner says many women like Savino emerge from their divorces feeling empowered, despite the challenges. “Understanding how to execute the plans you have created is enormous in terms of making the second act even better than the first,” Wagner says.
Today, just one year after her divorce became final, Savino and her ex-husband remain on good terms, and they’ve settled into a comfortable co-parenting rhythm, attending kid-related events and even spending holidays together. As a result, their children are flourishing.
And with new friends, a new career and a clearer sense of her financial future, Pamela Savino is thriving, too. “Sometimes we don’t realize how much we’re capable of, mentally and emotionally, until we are dropped into a situation and catapulted into something totally new,” she says. “I have been reborn as a result of this divorce.”