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Women and money: Avoid catastrophic surprises

By Terry Savage, Tribune Content Agency on

How shocking it is to hear that today’s educated and successful women are still being surprised about marital money issues — whether as a result of death, divorce, illness or betrayal.

Yet these true stories below — all of which I have encountered over the past three months — illustrate a costly deficiency when it comes to personal finances. (Names and details have been changed to protect the guilty!)

Susan is a successful career woman who contributed more than half the income and assets to her marriage. Their three children were in college when her husband asked for a divorce. She was blindsided — and also in need of a lawyer. But when the attorney asked for financial documents, past tax filings, investment accounts and bank records, she was at a loss. It wasn’t her “territory.”

Elaine had been living with a man for 12 years. She moved into his condo but also contributed to the monthly assessments, as well as paying for her own travel. Everyone assumed they were married. When her “husband” suffered a heart attack and died suddenly at age 56, she realized she knew nothing of his finances. And she received nothing, since his will left his assets to his adult children, who were also the beneficiaries of his retirement accounts. She was literally “out on the street.”

Janet worked in her husband’s business, scheduling staff and handling payroll. She was even paid a salary. But she never thought about where the rest of the money went — the savings, investments and tax payments were made by “the boss.” And when he announced he was leaving, she realized that except for one credit card, she didn’t even have much of a credit history. The family house was in his name!

Roberta learned her husband hadn’t paid the mortgage in eight months when she picked up a call from the lender, talking about a foreclosure on the family home. That’s how she discovered her husband and father of her two young children had been unemployed for over a year, since before the pandemic, and had run through all their savings.

And sadly, Luanne came to realize the importance of estate planning when her husband suffered early-onset dementia. Fortunately, she sought legal advice in time to put their joint assets into a revocable living trust, allowing her to handle the money and even sell their home as she needed money for his care. Without that power, she would have been stuck because a home owned in joint tenancy can’t be sold without a court order if one party is incapacitated.

The price of financial ignorance can be catastrophic! So if you have been letting this topic slide, afraid to start an argument, here’s a quick checklist of what to do on your own:

— Get your credit report — and his report — easily done since you likely have all his basic financial information. Start at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. View all open accounts and payment history. Make sure that mortgage payments are also shown on your credit report, and if not, contact the lender.

 

— Read your latest tax return. If you signed it, you can demand a copy from the accountant or IRS. Look at the “income” from various sources. If there is income or capital gains, make sure you know about the accounts.

— Demand an update to your “estate plan” — and participate in the process. It’s not just about “who gets what.” You need the power to manage assets in case of death or illness as a co-trustee. Do not surrender that power to a bank or legal “trustee.” And then make sure you rename all assets into the revocable living trust immediately.

— Look at the latest statements from all investment and savings accounts. Get the online log-in credentials for all accounts.

— Demand a meeting with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner. You can find a link to the Wealthramp search box at TerrySavage.com. Be sure to fully participate in any meetings.

Yes, I’m advocating that every woman — and man — get up to speed on all financial issues in a marriage or relationship. This is not about trust; it’s about that old saying: “Trust, but verify!” And, for sure, that’s a Savage Truth.

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(Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and the author of four best-selling books, including “The Savage Truth on Money.” Terry responds to questions on her blog at TerrySavage.com.)

© 2020 TERRY SAVAGE

 

 

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