In Matters of Family Finances, Ignorance Is Never Benign

Marriage brings all kinds of divisions of labor: You take out the garbage, your husband does the laundry. You pay the bills, your husband invests the family savings.

But no one can afford a division of information about money matters, because it's likely that, at some point, many women will be responsible for their household finances.

In the United States today, the divorce rate runs near 50 percent. Women can also have a special concern because the average age of widowhood is just 56.

The best defense against being surprised is to keep yourself informed. Several simple steps taken now can avoid both serious problems and minor inconveniences later.

One of the easiest is to locate the important paperwork of your family's finances - insurance policies, bank and brokerage statements, tax returns - and make sure they are filed in an accessible place.

If that place is a file drawer, make sure you know which one. If you keep a safe in the house, make sure you know the combination to the safe. If you keep valuables in a safe deposit box, locate the key.

Develop your own relationship with the family's lawyer, banker, broker, insurance agent, and accountant. Build a rapport with them by asking questions, now, about your account. Use them as resources throughout your marriage.

It's better to get to know them under normal circumstances, rather than in the middle of a crisis brought about by divorce or death. In the event of the former, they may be less likely to take the other side if the marriage turns sour.

If you sign a joint tax return, make sure both you and your husband understand how it is filled out. The IRS holds each signer responsible for the information, and usually does not accept ignorance of the facts and figures as a defense.

Beneficiaries on life insurance policies are easy to keep track of and simple to change when necessary. If you or your husband were married before, make sure the first spouse isn't still the beneficiary on older life insurance policies (unless required by a divorce decree).

This is often forgotten and regretted.

Most employees are covered by retirement plans and insurance policies at work. Know who the beneficiaries are, and keep both yours and your husband's up to date.

In addition to family assets, learn about family debts. Keep track of mortgage-payment books and credit card bills so that you have a ballpark idea of what is owed and to whom.

And don't stop there. Make sure your lifestyle is consistent with the assets and debts that you know about.

I know of one family where the husband had a compulsive spending habit.

He set up a post office box and directed his over-the-limit credit card bills to keep them hidden from his wife. She only learned about them when they tried to refinance their home.

It is hard to anticipate such a situation, but if you have a pretty good idea of how much money is earned and spent, you'll know to ask questions if expensive gifts or red sportscars begin to appear.

Keep apprised of loan co-signatures, too. If one of you co-signs a loan for a relative, make sure your house or other assets held in joint names are not put at risk. In some cases, you can do this by simply re-titling the assets.

It's not a bad idea to review your family's financial condition with your husband on a regular basis, say every six to 12 months. You also want to review your credit ratings (individually and jointly) at least once a year for errors or surprises.

Most married couples go through life without having to worry about a spouse's financial dealings. But we've all heard the horror stories of people treated unfairly in divorce proceedings. And even widows can be surprised when their financial picture becomes clear to them after the funeral.

Perhaps it is best to follow Ronald Reagan's advice on Russian nuclear arms:

Trust but verify.

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