Q&A: Couples and their accounts

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about things people should do after a spouse dies. May I recommend that before your spouse dies, be sure every account is in both your names.

It took six months to cancel my landline phone after my husband died and I moved out of our home. Apparently when we moved in 30 years ago, the service was in just my husband’s name. (I finally reached someone who said, “I don’t know why you’re having so much trouble with this!” and fixed it.)

Also, it took 1½ years, plus hundreds in lawyer fees, to get access to the safe deposit box that he’d had with his parents. This is despite a trust and will leaving everything to me. I was told that “banks don’t care about wills.”

Answer: That’s an excellent suggestion. It’s a lot easier to add a spouse to an account while you’re both alive. It’s a good idea to review all your accounts periodically to make sure the right people are on them, either as joint account holders or as beneficiaries.

Not every account can or should be in both spouses’ names, of course.

Modern credit card accounts, for example, typically aren’t jointly held but instead have a primary cardholder and an authorized user. Also, retirement accounts are in one person’s name alone, although the spouse typically is the beneficiary.

Banks aren’t the only entities that can ignore wills. Typically a payable-on-death account will go to the beneficiary, regardless of what a will or trust says. And speaking of estates, sometimes accounts will be held separately for estate planning purposes.

If you have an estate planning attorney, check with that person before changing how accounts are held.

Q&A: Different approaches to marital finances

Dear Liz: Thank you for mentioning that many couples like to keep their finances entirely or mostly separate. Our solution was to create a joint bank account just for paying joint expenses, such as rent, food, entertainment together, vacations and so on. We each funded this account proportionately, based on our income (for example, the person earning 65% of the total income contributed 65% of the funds). Expenses, such as gifts to our separate children, entertainment on our own, car payments and all personal expenses were paid out of our own separate accounts. Each year at tax time, we’d revise the proportion of the joint account, if necessary, based on our separate tax return figures. It was so simple and tension-free. This was a second marriage for both of us, and we never had disagreements about money.

Answer: Congratulations for finding an approach that worked so well for both of you. As you demonstrate, there’s no one right way for couples to handle their money. Some prefer to have everything in joint accounts, others keep everything separate, and most are somewhere in between.

Q&A: Handling money after marriage can be complicated. Mom and Dad should butt out

Dear Liz: My son just married. He and his wife are keeping totally separate finances, though he makes much more than she does. She is spending way more than she should on household items and services. Is this the new norm for relationships? What kind of professional do we contact that could help them with merging their finances?

Answer: You don’t contact any kind of professional. Your son and his wife can find help on their own. If your son starts complaining about his wife’s spending again, you might gently suggest that before changing the subject.

In answer to your first question, though, separate accounts aren’t the norm but they’re quite common. A 2018 Bank of America study found 28% of millennial couples kept their finances separate. Many prefer the sense of control and privacy that separate accounts offer.

But of course it’s still important for couples to work out budgets and joint goals together. That can take time, a lot of discussion and the willingness to compromise. It wouldn’t be fair for your son to dictate what they spend just because he makes more, just as it wouldn’t be fair for your daughter-in-law to purchase whatever she wants and assume he’ll chip in.

Again, however: It’s not your business, it’s theirs, and it will be better for all concerned if you keep out of it.

Q&A: Can this marriage’s finances be saved?

Dear Liz: I am 64 and my husband is 63. I retired five years ago after a 30-year professional career. My husband is an executive and plans to work until 70. We own two homes and one is a rental property. Both our boys are successfully launched. Currently, 67% of our retirement money is in stocks and stock index funds. The rest is cash and IRAs or 401(k)s. I am working on re-allocating that 67% to safer investments, but our two investment advisors don’t even agree on what that would look like. And my husband does not want to leave potential stock market gains. Help! I think it is time to switch to more conservative investments. What do you think?

Answer: Many financial planners would say you should only take as much risk as required to in order to reach your goals. Exactly what that looks like depends on how much you’ve saved, how much you spend and how much guaranteed income you expect to receive from Social Security, pensions and annuities, among other factors.

Most people need a hefty exposure to stocks in retirement to get the returns they’ll need to beat inflation, but whether that proportion is 30% or 60% depends on their individual circumstances. Your current allocation could be fine if your basic expenses are entirely covered by guaranteed sources (Social Security, pensions, annuities) and you want to leave a substantial legacy for your sons. Or you could be way overexposed to stocks and vulnerable to a downturn if you’ll need that money for living expenses soon.

Your IRAs and 401(k)s are not investments, by the way. They’re tax-deferred buckets to hold investments. How that money is allocated among stocks, bonds and cash matters as much as how your other investments are allocated and should be included when calculating how much of your portfolio should be in stocks.

If neither of your investment advisors is a certified financial planner, consider seeking one out to create a comprehensive financial plan for you and your husband. The plan should consider all aspects of your finances and give you a road map for investing and tapping your retirement savings. You can find fee-only financial advisors through the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network, the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners and the Garrett Planning Network.

Q&A: Here’s a big mistake to avoid when planning your wedding

Dear Liz: Would you advise taking money out of your 401(k) for your wedding if you’re getting a lump sum of money within the same year and can pay the full amount back?

Answer: How about postponing the wedding until you can pay for it in cash?

That would be so much better than starting your life together “betting on the come” — in gambling parlance, counting on cards that haven’t yet been dealt into your hand. There are so many ways that can go wrong and only a few where it can go right.

The most obvious risk in borrowing from your 401(k) is that you will lose your job and won’t be able to pay back the money before the balance is deemed a withdrawal, incurring taxes and penalties. Plus, you can’t put the money back, so you’ve lost all the future tax-deferred compounding those savings could have earned.

You’re also setting a seriously bad precedent for your marriage when you borrow money for a luxury, which is what a wedding is. (You also might want to read the Emory University study that found the duration of a marriage was inversely proportional to how much was spent on the engagement ring and wedding. The more spent, in other words, the shorter the marriage.)

It’s easy to get in the habit of borrowing rather than making hard choices or having hard discussions. But a good marriage, and sound finances, requires plenty of both. Give yourselves the gift of a wedding you can afford, when you can afford it.

Q&A: When the path to the altar is littered with old debts

Dear Liz: My fiancee has incurred a lot of medical debt during the course of our relationship. She works 13- to 14-hour days at two jobs so she can start saving for the wedding and our shared goals, which include buying her a car, sending me to grad school without incurring more student debt, creating a real emergency fund for us, and moving out of my apartment into a new one.

She thinks her credit is horrible (though she has never checked it) and she knows with the medical bills, it is getting worse. She doesn’t think she can move in because she can’t buy a car.

What should I do? Should I help her with her debt so we can actually plan for the wedding scheduled next July? Or should I let her deal with it herself?

My biggest concern in all of this is that I have significantly better finances. I worked hard in college and have a full-time job that pays a living wage. I’ve been in my own apartment for two years.

Sometimes I feel resentful of the fact that she cannot contribute to our household like I can, and I worry that I will have to shoulder our shared goals. I am particularly worried I will have to pay for the wedding, which I am finding more and more ridiculously expensive every day (we’re only spending $5,600), while not being able to save for grad school.

I really am not sure how to give up my frustration and face reality, and our reality is that medical debt is holding up our plans.

Answer: It’s understandable that you’re frustrated. But please don’t take it out on your fiancee, who sounds like a hard-working person who had the bad luck of getting sick.

Working 13-hour days isn’t sustainable, particularly for someone with health issues. She may already have more medical debt than she can reasonably repay, and continuing to struggle with these bills may make achieving other goals impossible.

Encourage her to make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Bankruptcy may not be the right choice for her, but the attorney should be able to assess her situation and discuss her options.

Her debt may be manageable with some help from you. In that case, you two need to discuss how to handle this and your finances in general.

Don’t listen to people — or your own preconceptions — telling you there’s only one way couples should handle money. Some married couples keep their finances entirely separate. Some combine everything — all assets and income are joint, and so are all debts. Most take a middle path, combining some accounts and obligations while keeping others separate.

Finances can also evolve. You may be able to contribute more now, but your fiancee may become the primary breadwinner when you start graduate school. When that happens, would you expect her to help you pay the student loan debt you acquired before marriage, or will that be your obligation?

What’s most important is that you figure out how to work as a team, without resentment and unspoken expectations. It may help to schedule a visit with a fee-only financial planner to discuss your shared goals and how you’ll fund them. You can get referrals to fee-only advisors who charge by the hour at the Garrett Planning Network, www.garrettplanningnetwork.com, and to those who charge monthly fees at the XY Planning Network, www.xyplanningnetwork.com.

Q&A:Prenup may help with student loan issue

Dear Liz: You recently heard from someone who discovered after marriage that his wife had more than $100,000 in student loans. Would having a prenuptial agreement help in this situation?

Answer: Possibly. Debts incurred before marriage are considered separate rather than joint debts, but creditors still sometimes try to go after joint assets to get paid. A prenuptial agreement, which is a written contract created before marriage, could help a couple limit liability for each other’s debts.

In this case, the husband was willing to help his wife resolve the debts, but knowing about them before marriage would have been helpful — to put it mildly. The loans probably would have turned up during the financial disclosures required when drafting a prenuptial agreement. Even couples who won’t consider a prenup should pull their credit reports together so each knows what he or she is getting into.

Q&A: When a new spouse brings surprise debt to the marriage

Dear Liz: I’m 58 and got married for the first time almost two years ago. I discovered my wife has several incredibly large outstanding student loans, including a parent Plus loan for her son’s education that she thought was in deferment and that has nearly doubled to well over $100,000. In addition, my wife has her own student loans, which total over $40,000 and have rates from 3% to nearly 7%. Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed to discover this debt and wish she had shared it with me earlier.

We have looked into consolidating the loans into the U.S. Department of Education’s student debt relief program, which creates a monthly payment program based on income and forgives the remaining balance after 25 years. I’m uncomfortable with this plan. The long duration of monthly payments would be a big struggle and, after 25 years, we would have paid nearly $40,000 over the current principal even with the outstanding balance being forgiven.

I’m contemplating liquidating all my non-retirement accounts and half of our savings to pay off the larger parent PLUS loan.This would leave us with very little liquid reserve but still some substantial retirement accounts. Our combined income is around $75,000. We would then consolidate my wife’s lower-rate debt and try to take a personal loan out to pay off the higher rate loans if we can secure a lower rate. Do you have any other suggestions as to my options?

Answer: Your situation is a perfect example of why couples should review each other’s credit reports before marriage. At the very least, you could have figured out a plan to deal with the debt at least two years earlier and saved the interest that’s accrued since then.

As you probably know, your wife is stuck with this debt. The government can pursue her to her grave because there’s no statute of limitations on federal student loan debt collections. The government also can take part of her Social Security retirement or disability checks, something collectors of other kinds of debt can’t do. Even bankruptcy isn’t a viable option for most borrowers because student loan debt is extremely hard to get erased.

It’s understandable that you don’t want to be making student loan payments into your 80s, but paying the loans off much faster probably isn’t a reasonable option, given your income. So liquidating other assets to pay off the parent loan may be the best option. The wisdom of this approach, however, depends on how well you’ve saved for retirement, your job security and how much of an emergency fund would remain. If you lost your job after paying off the parent loan, you couldn’t get that money back to pay your expenses. By contrast, you could have your payment lowered under the Department of Education’s plan if you lost a source of income.

Consolidating your wife’s debt inside the federal student loan program would allow her to retain some important consumer protections that aren’t available with other debt, such as the ability to defer payments for up to three years if she faces an economic setback. If you do refinance your wife’s debt with private lenders to lower the rate, consider doing so with a private student loan rather than a personal loan if you want to retain the ability to write off the interest.

This is a complex decision with a lot of moving parts, so you’d be smart to discuss your plan with a fee-only financial planner before deciding what to do.

Q&A: Remarrying late in life

Dear Liz: This is regarding the letter from the children worried about their widowed father remarrying. My father remarried a year after my mother died. He was 86. His wife and her family gave him love, care and companionship until his death at 93. I gained a wonderful new family whom I love. Once my dad asked how I would feel if he included his wife in his will. My response was that it was his money and he should do whatever he wanted. He raised me, sent me to college and was a kind and caring person. He owed me nothing else.

Answer: Thank you for sharing your positive experience with your stepmother and her family. Late-in-life companionship can be a real blessing.

Unfortunately, some predators target lonely older people and isolate them from their families as a way to get control of their finances. The predator paints the children’s attempts to intervene as “proof” of their greed. The original letter writers had seen this scenario play out in other families and hoped to avoid it in their own.

Q&A: No wedding, no Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I’m a female who has been with her male partner for 20 years. We are not married. In the event one of us dies, is the other entitled to the partner’s Social Security benefits? Or do we have to be legally married to qualify for benefits?

Answer: Your genders don’t matter. Your marital status does. To get Social Security benefits based on the other person’s work record, you need to make it legal.

Marriage offers hundreds of legal, financial and estate-planning advantages, and Social Security is certainly one of those. With married couples, lower-earning partners may qualify for bigger benefit spousal benefits than the retirement benefits they would receive on their own work records. After a death, the surviving spouse gets the larger of the couple’s two benefits. Social Security makes up more than half of most elderly people’s income, so this is no small deal.