How to Navigate the Minefield of Divorcing Clients

Divorces typically spike in the month of January, which can present opportunities for real estate professionals who are savvy enough to steer through these tricky situations.

January 4, 2012

The New Year symbolizes a new start, and for some couples that might mean a trip to the lawyer’s office: In the legal community, January has another name, “Divorce Month.”

“It’s the month for people who deferred things over the holidays — either because they don’t want to spoil the family’s celebrations, or because they feel they will be able to work things out over the holidays,” said Jay Baum, a divorce attorney based in New York. He says that’s when he sees more filings than any other month.

While January is not officially “Divorce Month,” there are studies that confirm it’s the most popular month for couples to go their separate ways and start anew. That fresh start often necessitates a change in real estate.

Randy Morrow, CRS, GRI, a broker with Keller Williams Realty in Arlington, Va., knows this firsthand. He’s been working almost exclusively with sellers on the verge of divorce for more than a decade.

Morrow says that working with sellers during this transition in their lives can be difficult, as the clients are more likely to be emotional about the process. And the real estate downturn hasn’t made divorcing any easier. Many couples can’t sell because they’re underwater on their mortgage. As a result they’ve had to turn to temporary solutions, such as designating the downstairs as the husband’s quarters and the upstairs as the wife’s living space.

Other couples want or need to sell, either for financial reasons or a desire to leave behind the emotional memories that the house can trigger. Here are his tips for how to handle what can often be a difficult sale.

Get It in Writing

Communicate to both parties through e-mail as much as possible, so there’s always a written record. For verbal and face-to-face meetings, keep a log and write down everything exactly as you remember it. This is a highly emotional situation, and you may be called to prove what you said or did not say.

Patience Is a Necessity

Real estate practitioners are used to assessing the situation, getting the home ready, and starting the process of selling in quick order. But in a divorce situation, getting approval on almost anything requires that you exercise extreme patience with two often-disagreeable people.

Be Prepared to Listen

Allow clients to talk for as long as they need to talk. Then, repeat what they said and add, “This is what I heard. Is that correct?” Quite often, when they hear their own words, the entire situation calms down, and you can then proceed.

Follow Up, and Then Follow Up Again

The more people know about what's happening, the calmer they remain. For highly charged divorce situations, multiply this feeling by 10. Keep the couple updated on everything that happens as it’s happening, right up to the point they tell you to slow down. Make that their decision.

Don’t Become Emotionally Involved

You cannot take their relationship problems on yourself. Make sure you focus solely on getting all the parties to the closing table. If you feel like you can’t resist getting personally involved, consider referring the work to another sales associate.

Katherine Tarbox is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine. Previously, she was editorial director for Washington Life. She is the author of the international bestselling book A Girl’s Life (Dutton, 2000) and has made hundreds of media appearances including The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and CNN.