Money Without Matrimony: Financial advice for unmarried couples

Money Without MatrimonyFiguring out the financial implications of marriage 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. There's a maze of legal, financial, and emotional issues to navigate, but sometimes it's difficult to get good advice in a society that's geared toward married partners.

Kim and I have been dating for nearly six years now. We've been living together for almost five. For that entire five years, we've been slowly negotiating the financial implications. At what point to we designate each other beneficiaries in our wills? On our retirement accounts? What things do we purchase together? How intermingled do we allow our bank accounts to become? Who pays for which utilities? Or do we split the costs equally? What about groceries? Pets? Vacations? Gifts?

In our case, I've been using Money Without Matrimony as a resource. This book by Sheryl Garrett and Debra Neiman (both of whom are certified financial planners) provides tons of advice to help unmarried couples plan their financial futures together.

Money Without Matrimony

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 6.6% of American households contain “unmarried partners”. Of these, 88.4% are opposite-sex partners and 11.6% are same-sex partners. Garrett and Neiman 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 covers:

  • 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 discuss 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. The 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 at 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.

One of the strengths of this book is that it looks beyond the dry financial planning aspects of living together and addresses some of the psychological and emotional issues that can arise in relationships. Plus, it's peppered with anecdotes that illustrate challenges faced by unmarried couples.

Drama in Real Life

As a guy who likes stories, my favorite parts Money Without Matrimony are the real-life examples of how couples deal with actual dilemmas. 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.

Living Together

Living TogetherMoney Without Matrimony is a great book. It's non-judgmental, practical, and packed with advice. Unfortunately, it's also old and out of print. The book was published in 2005. Its age doesn't invalidate the relationship advice, but some of the specific financial examples and recommendations are no longer relevant.

For more current money and legal help, I recommend Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples by Frederick Hertz and Lina Guillen. This book from NOLO Press, now in its sixteenth edition, covers many of the same technical topics as Money Without Matrimony, but from a more academic and less personal examples. (Even the examples and anecdotes in Living Together are academic, drawn from actual legal cases instead of from the authors' experiences.)

This book is adamant that unmarried partners must spell out their financial and property arrangements using a “living together contract”. (If “contract” sounds too formal or stuffy, call it a “living together agreement”.)

Most unmarried couples — and that includes me and Kim — have informal verbal agreements regarding their joined (and unjoined) financial lives. Kim and I bought our current home together, for example. We're both listed on the deed. I fronted all of the cash, however, and Kim is paying me a “faux mortgage” at the rate of $500 per month. This arrangement is sensible to us, and we both understand it. But it's not documented anywhere (except this blog post, I guess). (When I was married, I carried a faux mortgage to Kris for a while. The difference in that situation, though, is that we were married.)

Living Together argues — and rightly so — that the kind of agreement that Kim and I have is a recipe for disaster. If we something goes wrong, whether it's a death or a “divorce”, neither of us has any legal recourse. If we don't intend to marry, then it's in our best interests, as individuals and as a couple, to formalize our financial relationship.

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TheDebtHawk.com
TheDebtHawk.com
10 years ago

Wow, I can’t imagine managing money together without being married. Managing money in a marriage is tough enough.

If I was in an unmarried relationship, I don’t think I would try to manage money as a couple. It seems like too many problems. Maybe I need to read the book!!

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

Interesting… maybe I jumped into marriage too soon. 😉 Kidding.

It’s funny- my husband handled money differently when we weren’t married and had separate bank accounts. He’s much better now! I am really proud of him.

Money Reasons
Money Reasons
10 years ago

What a nightmare Betsy must have experienced in the excerpt above!

Death finance is something everybody is hesitant to talk about. Nobody likes to say “So when/if you die, what do I get“… The example above perfectly illustrates why communication about finances are so very important!

basicmoneytips
basicmoneytips
10 years ago

I do not think you should merge assets if you are not married. Too risky if something happens, like the story describes.

Once you are married, I think it is okay to ease into things and find a style that works for you. Usually one partner tends to be better at managing money than the other. That does not mean do not merge accounts and assets, just find a compromise that works.

BlueState
BlueState
10 years ago

@basicmoneytips, not every committed couple has the option to legally wed. In the United States, for example, gay couples are only allowed to get married in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont (also Washington, DC, though that situation is a bit more complicated).

And because of a piece of federal legislation called the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), these marriages are not recognized by the federal government and hence not by any federal agencies — like, say, the IRS.

JD, I’m going to try to track down a copy of this book; thanks for blogging about it!

Minderbender
Minderbender
10 years ago

Money without matrimony is not nearly as hard as matrimony without money.

Melissa
Melissa
10 years ago

I’ve been living this way for two years with my fiance. It’s really not that difficult. You just need to both be on the same page and communicate about expenses, insurance, etc…

If you wait until you’re married to get a clue about how to jointly manage money, assets, and insurance, than ha! Good luck!

Funyon
Funyon
10 years ago

What works for us. 🙂 Not that we know what we are doing. We keep separate bank accounts, mostly because we both liked our banks. We bought a house last summer. He took the tax credit as my name is on a rental property with my folks. The $8000 was used for part of an emergency fund. I pay the mortgage, interest, taxes and then use basically the rest of my income to pre-pay the mortgage. (I plan to take any tax deductions on the mortgage/interest in the future and use for e-fund or to prepay mortgage more) He pays… Read more »

namesarehardtopick
namesarehardtopick
10 years ago

To be fair, though, sometimes clarification is key. If you approach a relationship in an egalitarian manner, then the other person doesn’t expect anything after you pass away as you are each responsible for your own well-being (financially independent). Some people prefer this approach and avoid marriage because it would disallow such an approach. For an example, like Jordan, my investments and assets are dispersed to my older brother first, or my younger brother second (if the older one is gone). This is because our money is to always remain only in our family, not in someone else’s family. So… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

Our taxes are such a pain in the butt. And I keep seeing the tax advantage thing, but for most domestic partnered couples, DOMA rules on benefits make it more expensive taxwise. For instance, I’m on my partner’s insurance. So he has to pay taxes on the part of my insurance (not his or our son’s) that the company pays. This raises our tax burden quite a bit. We spent a lot of time on the IRS website last night trying to figure out a tax issue and there is NO HELP for couples that file as married at the… Read more »

Shane
Shane
10 years ago

This book might be a good read for my girlfriend and me. We get into many financial debates, but I think if we can effectively communicate our finances, it will help tremendously.

betty
betty
10 years ago

My boyfriend and I are managing our finances jointly and deeply without the big expensive party. We’re genuinely going to spend the rest of our lives together, but at this point a wedding would be more for our families then for us. We have a joint account for joint expenses: rent, utilities, etc. Initially, each month we direct-deposited just over our half, and the excess is fun money. In reality, I have a 9-5 desk job with insurance, etc., and he runs a successful business of his own. I have credit card debt and student loans, and he does not.… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

Regarding a pre-marital house purchase, we bought our house together before we were married. Our deed was joint tenant but because all of the money for the down payment had come from a prior house that I sold, we entered into a contract agreement as to what would happen to the home if (1) we broke up or (2) if one of us died. It wasn’t a romantic discussion but I put a $100,000 into our home and as a result I wanted to (1) protect my investment (2) make sure we were in agreement as to the disposition of… Read more »

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

I know she’s not popular around here, but Suze Orman does have books that deal with revocable living wills and trusts that would take care of the situation outlined above. Although first the couple would have had to communicate to get that started…why would anyone assume a deed had been changed?? I plan on moving in with my partner one day, and before we’re married I’ll probably do the joint bank account thing for common bills (rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries, cleaner, etc.) by taking a set amount each month and each of us depositing that. And then we’ll keep the rest.… Read more »

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

I’d like to see more discussion on this. My boyfriend and I are both high earners and, as I understand it, we would probably be financially penalized if we got married. This is an extremely important discussion–I know a lot of other dual-high-income earners who were caught off guard by this. Furthermore, we need to do a pre-nup since I own multiple businesses. My dad can write the pre-nup (he’s an attorney), but I’d like to see more about what I should have in it generally. This plus the cost of getting married has me happy to be single for… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Excellent post. May I also recommend that if your readers have a beloved possession which they want given to someone, that they make it known and even give the item prior to death? (Assuming death is expected.) My grandmother had several family heirlooms which were important to her, and she had specific ideas about how they should be disbursed. She had an entire set of vintage china, and antique crystal stemware. Rather than leaving it to be split with a few pieces going to each of her daughters, my grandmother spent her final days giving the items as she wished:… Read more »

J
J
10 years ago

I am in a similar situation to Erica. We have been living as if we were married for 6 years now and have no plans to stop until it will benefit us financially. The tax laws seem to be written with income inequality in mind. Take for instance Roth IRA AGI limitations: Single : Phase out starts at $105k and ends at $120k Married: Phase out starts at $166k and ends at $176k How does that make any sense? If 2 people each make $105k/year, they can fully fund their Roth IRAs, but if they were married they could contribute… Read more »

Pat
Pat
10 years ago

I’d also like to recommend Smart Couples Finish Rich. My wife and I read this right before we were married, and we’ve been doing really well so far. Thanks for the new recommendation, I’ll be checking it out soon. Thanks J.D.

RJ Weiss
RJ Weiss
10 years ago

For someone who just went through taking the CFP exam, I was surprised by how little of the material was targeted towards this situation.

It’s very easy to assume that everyone is married with 2.5 kids because that’s what most of the financial advice is written about. (mainstream media)

I will have to pick up a copy of this book. Sounds very interesting.

Christina in NM
Christina in NM
10 years ago

Erica (#12) if you get a prenup, I suggest that your father not write it up. Both parties should ideally have their own counsel to represent their interests. If that’s impossible or impractical, than use an impartial attorney (not a family member) with no interest in the outcome. Same goes for people drafting wills.

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

@Christina: That’s not a bad idea. Ideas like that are exactly why I’d like to see more discussion on the issue. 🙂

I have seen some real horror stories around divorce, and I’d rather deal with counsel now than later! Of course, no one wants to think about divorce when they are getting married, but it is a fact for nearly half of marriages, and I’m not one to play with those odds.

-Erica

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Great article and discussion. I’m married, but we haven’t dealt with a lot of these issues because we don’t have any kids and we have no assets except retirement accounts! But it’s past time we did get our act together.

Anyone out there looking for a copy of this book, I just did a search on http://www.abebooks.com and there are 19 copies for sale starting under $3. Get thee over there and order. 🙂

Thomas
Thomas
10 years ago

The institution of marriage was really designed for raising kids in a time when men were the primary wage earners. If there are no kids involved, life partners usually can accomplish most of the benefits of marriage with none of the potential costs [e.g. divorce].

MaryS
MaryS
10 years ago

In many states, the situation of Jordan and Betsy would have been covered by common law marriage. If they had lived together for a certain amount of time and been publicly engaged, she could have technically had a claim on the house. All she had to show was intent, cohabitation, and shared financial burden.

cipriano rodriguez
cipriano rodriguez
10 years ago

That would be hard to do if you are not married it is tough enough already. but maybe with some guidence it will be okay.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

In response to J, don’t forget that the Roth incomes have been eliminated this year. So you can fully fund that IRA and convert to a Roth or convert prior IRA monies to a Roth in 2010.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

This sounds like quite a compelling read, too bad it’s out of print. So much personal finance materials is geared toward the traditional nuclear family. Betsy’s story is tragic and disturbing. The part about them delaying their nuptials because Jordan’s family was not that fond of Betsy is unfortunate. Life is too precious and fleeting to live it for other people. If Jordan and Betsy were married, in most jurisdictions, the will, without any other affirmative action on Jordan’s part, would have been revoked. If you make a will prior to getting married and later on get married the law… Read more »

Awareness Home Funding
Awareness Home Funding
10 years ago

Irregardless of the official status of your relationship, if committed, honest and open communication about money and all things financial should happen on a very regular basis

Jan
Jan
10 years ago

Thomas- you might not be aware – but if you live in a common law state and have “declared” that you are a couple (and are heterosexual) , a divorce may be in the mix….My husband had to divorce his common law wife in order to marry me….

Waning Moon
Waning Moon
10 years ago

@27 (DreamChaser57) I think most reliable advice would say to first contribute to your 401(k) whatever your company matches (since it’s free money!), then max out your Roth IRA, and then max out your 401(k). The difference is that a 401(k) is tax-deferred, so ALL YOUR EARNINGS are taxed when you withdraw or use the money. With a Roth IRA, you are contributing taxed dollars, but your interest will not be taxed. (If I’m correct — could be wrong! If I am, someone correct me!)

Wendy
Wendy
10 years ago

Good article. As for Betsy and Jordan, there are two sides to every story and there’s alot that was left out. What if Besty was a golddigger who was 20 years younger than Jordan? While it seems like “oh poor Betsy”, I think that most people would side with Jordan’s family. Think about it from their side… how many of us would expect to give up our family home to a person our deceased family member only knew a few years and chose not to marry because of tension with the family. My bet is that even if he had… Read more »

Laura H
Laura H
10 years ago

I was so excited to see the title of this article! But it wasn’t what I thought.

Sometimes I think I must be the only single person in the world who has concerns about frugality.

Laura H
Laura H
10 years ago

@ Wendy: it’s my feeling that there should always be a prenup. How do you expect a grieving widow to remember that “his” watch was actually handed down from Great-Uncle Bernie and, no matter how much her husband loved it, it should go back to her family, instead of being buried with him? Or, when she finds out about that one drunken night, that when she’s making a dramatic gesture of “closure,” she’s actually stealing his grandmother’s engagement ring from his innocent niece Katie?

KT
KT
10 years ago

I know a real life Betsy and Jordan situation and it was just awful for the living…

Yuri
Yuri
10 years ago

My partner of five years and I each have our own individual accounts and the joint account that holds money for the mortgage, bills, day care, and groceries and other general purchases. We are both on the deed and the mortgage, both of our name are on the vehicle title and loans. Since we are both picky comsumers we buy our own clothing and the baby’s clothing from our own accounts. We share everything that has to do with us, to include our baby’s expenses like pampers and other toiletries. Anything else remaining she can use however she wishes and… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

@Yuri – yeah, having to write up a will & a power of attorney before i gave birth was really helpful for us. It’s actually kind of a disservice to married people that they never have to sit down and clarify that stuff (aside from the expense). @Wendy – I can’t imagine any outsider thinking it’s appropriate to evict someone on the day of their partner’s funeral. Sure, if you own the house you’re going to probably eventually take posession. But the day of the funeral? The HOUR of the funeral? No way. And, having written obituaries for a living… Read more »

Wendy
Wendy
10 years ago

@ Laura H. I’m a firm beleiver in prenups (if ony for the process of discussing the finances before marriage) but the examples you gave could have been handled by a will. @ Rosa, I don’t agree with the way the family went about taking the house, it was unconscionable. However, I do believe they should have gotten the house eventually after giving Betsy sufficient time to make arrangements. I have to wonder how an “outsider” would have access to the home in the first place. Moving her out on that day required some forethought, coordination, and a deep level… Read more »

Bonnie
Bonnie
10 years ago

@#28- “Irregardless” is NOT a word!! I can’t believe you wrote that w/o reading what you wrote.

To clarify what Sam #26 said, it’s the income limit on Roth conversions that was eliminated this year and not the income limit on Roth contributions.

Noxius
Noxius
10 years ago

@J, the wash sale rule is not eliminated by using a different broker for the two transactions. Wash sales are based on the same stock sold and purchased.

J
J
10 years ago

@Noxius,

Right, what we are doing is selling from one person’s account and buying in the other. Since we unrelated for ownership/tax purposes its no different than if I sold a security and you bought it 🙂

Rae
Rae
10 years ago

Thanks for recommending the book. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy.

My partner and I have a system that works fine for us with mostly separate finances (although we still discuss them quite often and are well aware of each other’s), and have put each other as the beneficiaries for the important stuff, so we’ll get most of the estate, however it’s still important to think about.

Laurah
Laurah
10 years ago

@Wendy: sorry, I should have made it more clear: the second situation I mentioned did not concern death but divorce/ infidelity. Not that I’m notpicky and defensive, or anything, and not that my status as a single person has anything to do with my refusing to inflict that on another human…

Shweta Rai @ OnlineBusiness.org
Shweta Rai @ OnlineBusiness.org
5 years ago

These are things people usually don’t even consider when planing to move in together or when deciding to get married. I think these are topics every couple should talk about to avoid unnecessary drama. Nice review & thanks for sharing.

S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

It’s always important to think about what happens to your assets when you die, married or otherwise.

My aunt’s father married her stepmother and didn’t make a will before he died. His children were left with nothing when he passed because everything reverted to his wife on his death and she left it all to her heirs.

Dave @ Married with Money
Dave @ Married with Money
2 years ago

Roommate Contracts are super important, particularly when home ownership comes into play. When Kristin and I moved in together we agreed that if we split up, she’d move out (since I could technically afford rent on our own). Now that we’re married, we’re both on the deed so nothing to fret about in that regard, but I am still not sure if we’ve taken care of the beneficiary paperwork we need to on all of our other accounts.

mary w
mary w
2 years ago

Before anything else unmarried couples need to be honest with themselves and each other why they are remaining unmarried.* Are they in a totally committed long-term forever relationship but can’t get married for some reason? (a real impediment, not just my family doesn’t like him.) Or are they living together for as long as the relationship last – which isn’t expected to be forever. Different degrees of financial interdependent are best in these different situations. Partners also need to assess who they would feel about financial arrangements if the relationship ends. Would JD feel screwed if Kim got half the… Read more »

FoxTesla
FoxTesla
2 years ago

Situations like this could get messy in locations with common law marriage and community property rights. Using the state of Texas as example, a couple that presents themselves as husband and wife in public a single time while living together could be interpreted as common law. This makes all income and assets received during the “marriage” 50/50, with the onus being on the partner to prove it separate property!

Jan
Jan
2 years ago
Reply to  FoxTesla

I was going to write the same thing. My bff never formally married, but did have to get a divorce because they presented themselves as a couple. The West is tight on such things because of so many “stagecoach” weddings. Always good to check the laws in your state.

Lady Dividend
Lady Dividend
2 years ago

What a cautionary tale and a great reminder to have my fiancé and I check up on our wills and beneficiaries after we tie the knot! We also have an informal arrangement but no joint assets at this time.

Leigh
Leigh
2 years ago

It’s really important to talk about this stuff! My now-husband and I signed & notarized a cohabitation agreement based on a template we found on the internet, before he moved in to the condo that I had bought when I was single. It basically stipulated that all of our assets were separate, especially the condo and we in no way were married and he could not get any equity in the condo. I specifically offered to update my will at the same time with a clause that he could buy the condo back from my estate at purchase price, but… Read more »

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