With close to 50% of marriages ending in divorce, letting your spouse handle the monetary chores is a risk that could leave you financially vulnerable. No one wants to live as though she's just waiting for her relationship to implode, but you should know that there are simple, effective—and not at all hostile—ways to protect yourself...just in case.
1. Carry your own plastic.
If every bank account and credit card is in your husband's name, you will be a financial nobody without him. Before you do anything else, open a bank account and get a credit card in your name.
2. Read the fine print.
Look over all tax returns, investment agreements, real estate contracts and legal documents carefully. Get a credit report annually so that there are no surprises in your family's debt situation.
3. Define what's yours, mine, and ours.
A postnuptial agreement can protect assets accrued after the marriage, such as an inheritance. Make sure that you're listed on the deed to your home as joint owner or that the house is classified as community property.
4. Don't give up bill-paying duties.
Sometimes women who aren't working feel uncomfortable participating in financial decisions. For your protection, be aware of how the money comes in and where it goes out. Some couples take turns paying bills on an annual basis.
5. Get to know your financial advisers.
Attend any meetings with an investment planner, lawyer or accountant. Should there ever be a problem, you'll have the network you need to make important decisions.
6. Make plans for the future.
Make sure you and your spouse each have adequate life insurance, a will and a living trust. Consider putting aside money for long-term care (women tend to outlive men). Don't neglect your own retirement—if you and your husband file a joint return, you can each contribute up to $5,000 a year to a spousal IRA ($6,000 if you're 50 or older).
7. Keep your professional hat in the ring.
Even if you plan to stay home for good, maintain your networks and stay in touch with colleagues. Whether through divorce or widowhood, the odds are real that you'll be financially responsible for yourself again. At the nonprofit Women's Institute for Financial Education (WIFE, wife.org), they have a slogan: "A man is not a financial plan." It's the truth.
From the March 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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