I taught courses in personal financial planning at the New School for Social Research in New York City for 18 years. Most of my students were women. Periodically, I still teach courses at local colleges and still find a large percentage of women in my courses.
Many of these students were widows who had not actively participated with their deceased husbands in basic personal financial decisions such as investing and retirement issues. I believe, based on the mail I receive from readers, that many women are very active managing household finances. However, I’d like to address this column to all spouses, men and women, and urge them to play a more active role while their spouse is alive in investing, retirement planning and estate planning.
Many authors with expertise in analyzing relationships in marriage point out that couples who share responsibilities regarding personal finance have much better chances of successful marriages.
Money magazine conducted a poll in 2015 that compared the perceptions and behaviors of 500 millennials and 500 baby boomers when it comes to their relationships and money. The study found distinct differences between their approaches to financial matters. (I am confident that a study done today would show the same thing.) However, one theme crossed generations: Couples who agree on saving and budgeting feel more financially secure, argue less about money and in general have more satisfaction in their marriages. The Money poll suggested that most of the couples interviewed (both boomers and millennials) felt that, before marriage, couples should discuss debt issues, savings goals and amounts saved. Unfortunately, other research shows that few married couples truly practice transparency. American Express conducted a poll a few years ago that showed that 91% of people avoid conversations about money with their partner.
Many important financial decisions require close working relationships between spouses. For example, couples should be discussing issues such as how much to save, where they should be investing their savings and what percentage of their investments should be in stocks vs. bonds.
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what their goal is regarding a nest egg before retiring, at what age each spouse should retire, how much life insurance is required and who should be covered, when each partner should apply for Social Security, retirement goals, what percentage of their income while working will be needed for retirement, whether each spouse should be the other’s sole beneficiary of their retirement plans, long-term care issues, and whether annuities should play a role in your planning.
That’s quite a list, and couples may want to discuss many of these issues with a financial planner. However, discussions should include both parties. These decisions should not be made by one spouse without input from the other. You may decide that one spouse should takes a greater role in these decisions, but in meetings with a financial adviser regarding these issues, both spouses should participate.
When one member of the family is the primary decision maker regarding financial decisions, it is critical to document all the important information for the surviving spouse in the event of the decision maker’s death. For example, the following information should be documented and organized well: life-insurance policies and insurance contacts; list of all assets, liabilities and associated records; location of wills and trusts; a legal contact; mutual-fund and brokerage contacts; information regarding recurring bills; records of all passwords related to computer information; beneficiary information; employer contacts; and contact information for friends and relatives.
Unfortunately, many of the widows in my classes indicate that when their spouses died, they did not have immediate access to the information they needed. It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but if you have allowed your spouse to make most of the major financial decisions, make sure this information is documented for you.