Mixing Money, Marriage

by Kathleen Pender

San Francisco Chronicle, June 20, 2004

Most young couples spend more time picking out invitations and flowers for their wedding than they do planning how they will manage their finances after they’re hitched. That’s a shame, considering money is a leading cause of marital stress. It’s also understandable. “After planning the wedding, the last thing you want to do is plan some more,” says Steve Clary, who got married the summer before last.

The first decision couples face is what to do with those separate checking accounts. But that’s just the beginning of a procession of financial challenges. The couple must decide what to do with assets they owned before marriage and how to manage and title assets acquired during marriage. If one spouse is a spendthrift and the other a tightwad, or if one is a gambler and the other risk averse, they will have to come to some kind of understanding.

Clary and his wife, Elizabeth, both 29, used the trial-and-error approach. A week after Clay proposed, they opened a joint account for shared expenses, but kept their individual accounts. Then they opened two accounts for the wedding and one for a honeymoon. “We thought that would keep things straight,” Elizabeth says. “What a disaster. My parents were funding the wedding and sent checks to cover various expenses. Unfortunately, the checks didn’t always arrive as soon as we needed them. The actual result was quite a few frenzied nights on the computer, shuffling money in and out of the (six) accounts in order to beat the bank.” After the wedding, “we tried several forms of managing finances, including allowances, balancing the checkbook almost daily, using computer programs that would alert us when bills were due and old-fashioned guesswork,” Elizabeth says. They finally decided to keep one joint account and two separate accounts. After they bought a house in Petaluma, Elizabeth’s account became the mortgage account, and Steve used his to run his business. That’s working for now. “It just took us awhile to really get the organization into our minds,” says Steve, a carpenter.

To get off to the right start, couples should sit down — preferably before saying “I do” — and have an unromantic talk about money. “Block out time to sit down to discuss this really important and intimate subject. Don’t try to do it at the breakfast table,” says Joyce Franklin of JLFranklin Wealth Planning in Larkspur.

The Big Talk
For starters, couples must disclose their complete financial situations to each other. “Once people are married, they have a fiduciary duty to each other. Each spouse is entitled to know everything about the other’s income, assets and debts,” says Jill Hersh, a family law attorney in San Francisco. Spouses can’t hide assets or set up secret accounts. Franklin says spouses should obtain and share with each other their credit reports and discuss how their debts, if any, will be repaid. Generally, an individual’s debt before marriage remains that person’s separate debt.

Next, partners need to discuss their attitudes about money. “If you’re tight with a dollar, is it because your parents blew their money and you had to put yourself through school?” asks Judy Barber, a marriage and family consultant in San Francisco. “What’s important is that people listen to each other — for understanding, not necessarily agreement,” Barber says. “When you marry someone, what you see is what you get. Having an expectation that somebody is going to change doesn’t work.”

The most common money squabbles involve who spent how much for what, says author Christine Larson of Sacramento, who interviewed dozens of couples for the book “The Family CFO.” “One couple had a knock-down, drag-out over a tattoo,” she says. When the husband came home with half a tattoo, the wife was furious because they were trying to pay off credit cards. He waited six months to get the other half. The best way to minimize spending fights is to set goals. “It may be to retire or buy new cars every five years. Then we work backward to determine what kind of spending patterns happen now so they can achieve these goals,” Franklin says.

Couples should make a budget as a way to monitor their progress. The most successful couples, Larson says, had simple budgets, and if they didn’t merge their accounts, they had them at the same bank. “Somebody was in charge of cash flow, balancing the checkbook, and someone was in charge of investments. It was totally clear who did what,” Larson says. Franklin urges couples to use a software program like Quicken or Microsoft Money to track their income, outgo and net worth.

When Carlos and Eibleis Melendez of Martinez, both 28, got married in November 2002, they wanted to be equally involved in their finances. “Neither one of our mothers was that in tune with the financial decisions. Neither one of us liked that. We wanted to both be knowledgeable,” Carlos says. “We monitor everything on the Quicken account. For the most part, I handle the books, but she can see what happens as easily as I can,” he says.

Yours, Mine or Ours?
Soon-to-be spouses must decide whether to merge assets they acquired before marriage or to keep them separate. In California, any income or asset acquired during a marriage “is presumed to be community property except for two main categories: the assets each one brings into the marriage and gifts and inheritances” made to a single spouse, says Dick Kinyon, a tax and estate lawyer with Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. Community property is owned jointly by both spouses. In a divorce, the value is almost always split 50-50, even if one spouse earned all the money. “If something is community property, it will still be community property even if it is held in one person’s name alone,” Hersh says.

Assets acquired by one spouse before marriage or during marriage by gift or inheritance are that spouse’s separate property. In a divorce, each spouse generally keeps his or her separate property. If a spouse wants to keep separate property separate, he or she should retain the asset in his or her own name and keep it segregated from any funds acquired during the marriage. For example, if a man has a brokerage account he wants to keep separate, he should keep earnings from the account inside the account and not add any funds he acquired after the wedding. Things get messy when joint property and separate property are mixed. Suppose a woman owns a house before marriage, but she and her husband continue to pay off the mortgage with community property earnings. If she adds her husband to the title and they get divorced, she will probably be entitled to the value of the house at the time his name was added. All of the value that accrued after his name was added will be community property to be divided between them. If she had kept the house in her name only, she would get the house, but the community may be owed an amount equal to a fractional interest in the house.

“If you get an inheritance or gift and put it in your joint bank account and spend it on living expenses and buying assets, it’s very hard to trace,” Kinyon says. “It’s like a scrambled egg. How do you unscramble it?” Couples can override the state’s property laws by signing a prenuptial agreement. If one spouse enters a marriage with substantially more assets than the other or if there are children from a previous marriage, couples should at least see a lawyer about a prenup. “Sometimes it poisons the atmosphere,” Kinyon says. “But even if they don’t do it, they at least learn what their rights are.” In general, most lawyers and financial planners advise couples to keep their separate assets separate, at least early in the marriage. “Joint titling of assets is not something you should rush into,” says San Ramon financial planner Rich Goldstein. “After years of marriage, there might be reasons to put it in joint names.”

How to Title Assets
There are three ways married couples can jointly title assets. Under joint tenancy with right of survivorship, each spouse owns half the asset. If one dies, the survivor automatically inherits the dead spouse’s half without going through probate. For tax purposes, the dead spouse’s half of the asset is stepped up to the value on the date of death. If the asset has appreciated since it was acquired, this can produce tax benefits.

If the asset is titled as community property and one spouse dies, the entire asset — both spouses’ shares — is stepped up to the value at the date of death. That can provide a bigger tax advantage than joint tenancy. The downside is that the surviving spouse might have to go through probate court to get the deceased spouse’s community property assets.

In California, married couples have a third option. If they hold an asset as community property with right of survivorship, 100 percent of the asset will be stepped up in value when the first spouse dies, but the surviving spouse will not have to go through probate to get the deceased spouse’s half. Many lawyers advise young couples to hold assets this way.

Same-sex Couples
Under current law, same-sex couples cannot hold assets as community property and are not covered by the state’s community property laws. However, beginning Jan. 1, under a new state law, AB205, the same community property laws that cover married couples will cover domestic partners who are registered with the state. If the partnership breaks up, the richer one may have to pay spousal support (alimony) to the poorer one, says Frederick Hertz, an Oakland attorney who runs SameSexLaw.com.

What’s not clear is what will happen when state and federal laws conflict. For example, if registered domestic partners hold assets as community property, the entire asset may not be stepped up in value when the first partner dies, as it would be if a married spouse died, Hertz says. New couples should check their retirement accounts and life insurance policies to see who is named as beneficiary. “If they want to provide for a spouse, they should name the spouse as a beneficiary,” Hersh says. If they have a traditional pension plan at work, they should see if they can elect a spousal benefit that would allow the spouse to receive benefits after the employee’s death.

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