When you get married, figuring out the financial implications can be a challenge. Do you merge your money completely? Do you keep some or all of the accounts separate? And who takes care of which household financial chores?

As difficult as marriage and money can be, things are even tougher for unmarried couples, both gay and straight. There are all sorts of legal, financial, and emotional issues, and it’s difficult for these folks to get good advice in a society that’s geared toward married couples.

While researching Your Money: The Missing Manual, I stumbled upon a fantastic book from Sheryl Garrett and Debra Neiman (both of whom are certified financial planners). In Money Without Matrimony (Dearborn 2005), Garrett and Neiman provide tons of advice to help unmarried couples plan their financial futures together.

Unique problems
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 5.2% of American households contain “unmarried partners”. Of these, 89.1% are male/female partners, 5.5% are male partners, and 5.4% are female partners. The authors divide these groups into younger heterosexual couples, older (retirement-age) heterosexual couples, and same-sex couples. Each group has specific concerns, and Money Without Matrimony takes care to explore issues unique to each situation. The authors write:

If unmarried couples take the right approach to financial planning, put in place proper legal documentation, and capitalize on existing laws, it’s possible to nearly equalize the inequities of a system geared toward married couples.

Money Without Matrimony covers a broad range of topics, exploring each from the perspective of the unmarried couple. The book explores:

  • Communication. The book stresses that it’s important to go beyond just discussing who’s going to pay the bills this month. Couples need to discuss their money blueprints, and they need to plan their future together.
  • Partnership. Money Without Matrimony contains one of the best explorations of the joint or separate finances debate I’ve ever read. The authors explore a variety of different ways to merge household finances. (This is good info even for married folks.)
  • Taxes. This is one area where, with proper planning, unmarried couples have an advantage over married couples. This book explains how to exploit this.
  • Estate planning. If they don’t plan ahead, unmarried couples can face a world of woe when one (or both) partner dies. It’s vital to document things completely and correctly in order for your wishes to be followed. The authors cover wills, trusts, directives, and more.
  • Other issues. Money Without Matrimony looks are more than just financial issues. The authors also explore the complications of children, legal issues such as domestic partnership agreements, and so on.

The book also covers insurance, retirement planning, children, and more. A lot of these topics may seem boring, I know, but they’re crucial for every couple, married or not.

Drama in real life
The best parts of the book are the real-life examples of how couples deal with actual dilemmas. (I love books that do this, which is one reason my book contains lots of stories from GRS readers.) Here’s a prime example of the type of story the book includes (and the issues facing unmarried partners):

Jordan and Betsy shared a home that Jordan initially owned individually. When the couple moved in together, though, they split everything 50-50 and always talked about “their” home and their future together. Betsy just assumed Jordan had changed the deed on the house to include her. It never occurred to either of them, in fact, that the home didn’t belong to both of them. Two years into their relationship, Jordan popped the big question, asking Betsy to marry him. She said yes, but no date was set for the wedding. Jordan’s family still hadn’t warmed to Betsy, so the couple thought it best to wait for a while before tying the knot.

Not long after proposing to Betsy, Jordan died in an automobile accident. Naturally, Betsy was upset and distraught. After the funeral and reception, friends of the couple took her out to dinner. When Betsy finally arrived back at her home, Jordan’s older brother and father were in the process of moving Betsy’s belongings out of the house and into a rented van. Betsy was horrified to learn that her partner had left the house to his brother, according to the terms of his will drafted six years earlier — long before she and Jordan had met. Betsy buried her partner and lost her home in the same day, and she had no recourse.

This story makes my blood boil (and yet it’s unfortunately all too common), but Jordan and Betsy could have avoided this tragedy if they’d planned ahead. That’s what Money Without Matrimony is all about: Making sure that unmarried partners take the steps necessary to share their finances together, both now and in the future.

The bottom line
Money Without Matrimony is a great book. It’s non-judgmental, practical, and packed with advice. If you’re in a committed unmarried relationship, I highly recommend you track down a copy. (This may be difficult: My county library system only has two copies, and the book is out of print. But Amazon has some cheap used copies left.)

And to be honest, a lot of the advice here is great even for married couples!

Note: Here’s the book’s official site, which doesn’t actually have a whole lot of info, though you can preview the first few pages of the book.

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