I’ve loved you for years … now let’s talk money (again)

Posted by on October 11, 2011 @ 1:20 pm in Personal finance

We received a strong response to my post “I love you…now let’s talk money,” which primarily focused on newer couples approaching the topic of shared finances for the first time. I was struck by the number of candid comments from those of you—well beyond the honeymoon phase—who’ve been navigating the sometimes murky waters of shared finances for many years. Thanks for sharing so many of your own experiences and valuable advice.

One comment in particular inspired me to draft this follow-up post:

“Attn: Karin Risi – Good idea about indoctrination of newlyweds to financial information. Now how about us old folks at the other end of the line? It would be nice if we left this world together, but that is not likely. It is usually the man who leaves first and the widow [who] may need help. How about a list of “To Do’s” before it’s too late?”

This reader is absolutely right—the need for “the money talk” remains important, even decades into a relationship. And while the specific issues at hand shift with each new life stage, the conversation can always be daunting and laden with emotion. Nobody likes to dwell on it but, as our reader points out, “leaving this world together” is unlikely. And prepared or not, the grieving spouse or partner is left (sometimes suddenly) to manage the finances alone.

Creating a plan that both members of a couple feel confident implementing is important and may help provide comfort when one partner passes away. The following to-do list offers a useful starting point for the discussion:

1. Revisit your goals: Consider opening the conversation with a reaffirmation of your shared financial goals. Do you both basically agree on how your assets should be passed on to children, stepchildren, grandchildren, charities, and/or educational institutions? Do you fear that your partner will be overwhelmed managing finances on his own? Is she particularly sensitive to discussing what will happen after you pass away? Do strained family relations have either of you worried about how financial matters will unfold in your absence?

If you answered “yes” to any of the last three questions, you may need to start slowly and accept incremental progress over the course of multiple discussions—but press on.

2. Fill in the blanks: It’s not uncommon for one partner to take the lead in financial decision making. The dynamics can become even more complex when you’re trying to determine if, when, and how to bring grown children into the loop. But allowing one partner to remain in the dark on financial matters—even if it’s that person’s long-standing custom and preference—can leave you both in a precarious situation. Sharing financial specifics will allow your partner to more clearly assess his or her true level of readiness for handling money matters in your absence. If warranted, it may also provide the time to seek the help of a qualified financial advisor.

3. Take inventory: Once you’ve reached general agreement on how to distribute your assets, it’s time to take stock of what you already have. Start by creating a secure but accessible list of your major assets and insurance policies. Make sure to include the institutions where the assets are held, account numbers, and other necessary contact information. It’s also important—especially for second marriages, domestic partnerships, and blended families—to carefully review the beneficiary designations on all 401(k) plans, IRAs, life insurance policies, etc.

4. Take control: Hopefully, you both now understand what’s at stake. Looking ahead, an estate plan can help you further ensure that your assets will be handled according to your wishes. You may already have an estate plan, but keep in mind that if it was prepared more than five years ago, or if you’ve recently experienced a significant life event, it’s probably time to review it again to ensure it still reflects your current situation.

If, on the other hand, it’s been nagging you that you haven’t created a will or you’re not convinced that you need an estate plan, you’re not alone. Understanding the intricacies of a will, different types of trusts, and various powers of attorney can feel like deciphering code. What’s more, many investors mistakenly assume that they don’t have enough wealth to warrant an estate plan. But an estate plan determines more than who gets the money—it can also minimize taxes and expenses for your loved ones and clarify your wishes concerning medical intervention and health care decisions. In short, almost everyone needs an estate plan. Read Why you need an estate plan on vanguard.com to learn more.

5. Plan for the unexpected: We’re all living longer, but longevity isn’t cheap (and Medicare doesn’t cover everything). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 70% of individuals age 65 and older will require some form of long-term care in their lifetime—70%! Of those that need long-term care, 20% will depend on it for more than five years.

You need a realistic plan to deal with this considerable expense should the need arise for it. If you can afford private long-term care insurance, it may make sense to purchase it. But there are several important factors to consider when looking for a policy, including your current age and accumulated wealth. Vanguard.com has information to help you sort through some of those issues and know what to look for. My colleague and fellow blogger John Ameriks also discusses long-term care insurance along with Medicare, Medicaid, and other options in this useful podcast.

In my initial post, I likened the “money talk” to a root canal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much easier as you get older. The financial issues get arguably more complex and addressing those issues may still require a series of potentially touchy conversations with your partner. But the years you’ve spent together may give you at least one advantage over the blissful newlyweds in this instance. No one understands your partner quite like you do. You probably know each other inside and out—flaws and all—and you’ve managed to love each other anyway … for decades. And if you’re lucky enough to still be together, you’re probably a pretty good team.

Coming to terms on these issues is important, plain and simple. The return on your investment of time and energy (and admittedly, some money) can be pretty powerful. It’s hard to argue that many things are more important than your peace of mind.

Do you and your longtime partner already have your financial affairs squared away? Can you offer advice for others who may be tiptoeing around this conversation?

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