We all know that within a marriage, over the years you comfortably settle into a division of “jobs,” depending on expertise, or maybe just what you dislike the least. Guys aren’t made to take out the trash, but, hey, it’s an easy job compared to washing the dishes after dinner. This cuts down on the annoyance factor, and greatly reduces the “It’s your turn” debates.
We get comfortable with this arrangement, and don’t even really think about it. It just happens, and it works. Until it doesn’t. When one of you is temporarily or permanently “out of commission,” what happens when that person is the one who pays the bills, transfers funds to the checking account, and makes sure doctor’s appointments are made? There are some things you absolutely need to share with each other, to keep the wheels on in such an event.
My own division-of-labor looks something like this: Every time I would have an appointment with our investment manager, my husband would beg to be let off having to sit through those meetings. He didn’t know what we had, and didn’t want to have to learn. Same with reviewing and signing tax returns, paying the bills electronically. At the same time, he has to stock the fridge whenever he goes out of town, or I end up eating Cheetos and guacamole for dinner.
What happens if I can’t pay the bills and manage the money? He doesn’t even know any of my passwords, except to make my airline reservations (his job). So now we’ve talked and have a back-up plan.
Even more serious? When one spouse handles all the money and important documents and the other has no clue how much or where anything is? That is a nightmare for the surviving spouse to piece together.
Even worse, what if the one with the hand on the money began to stray and play, and ultimately thought he might leave (usually a “he,” but not always). This creates a big incentive not to share all of the information with the other. Maybe not reveal certain accounts that are held in one name, not two, with likely no mail coming to the home from a firm you don’t recognize.
This actually happened to a friend of mine. I was talking to a group of friends on this topic of “Being a Partner,” and showed them the easiest way to know where every account or asset was, and gave them a workbook. Likely most of those went into the “too hard to deal with right now” pile, but one friend actually decided she needed to be equally knowledgeable about their finances and assets. She spent months completing the information, as her husband was slow to give her all the information, because he was buried in work, etc. But she persisted.
And guess what? She discovered six months later that he was in a long-term affair, and that led to a divorce. She was sick about it, but one thing that made it more bearable was that she knew what and where every asset was, so she would not be a further victim.
This is a worst-case scenario, and not likely to happen to most of us. But one thing that is likely, as we get older, is that one partner will be hospitalized for some period of time, and the other one will have to manage while the other is not able.
Learn how to pay the bills, where the assets are, and who to call if you need to bolster the cash in your checking account. Read your estate plan documents, and read your investment reports and tax returns before signing. It is the responsible thing to do, and it is also the smart thing to do.