How to marry but keep my money?

Mingling our finances gives me mixed feelings

Published April 6, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

With as many emotionally devastating issues that cross your desk and the painful dilemmas that other readers find themselves in, I'm a little hesitant to ask for advice regarding my situation. I perceive my problem to be fairly small, and most would think it a good problem to have. However, it has been occupying much time and emotional energy, so I would like any guidance you can give me.

I have been involved with a wonderful woman for four years. We are great together and pretty much always have been -- we have lots of fun, we love and respect each other deeply, and when we have differences we settle them with open and adult discussion. We recently got engaged and are still basking in the glow of that commitment. We are excited to build our lives even more together than we have in the past few years. However, there appears to be one issue with which we are having a hard time: money.

I was fortunate enough to make a fair amount of money 10-15 years ago, when I was barely out of college. Through a combination of hard work, good timing and just plain luck I managed to amass a sizable nest egg in addition to buying a nice house in a good neighborhood. Getting completely burned out on my previous career, I took a few years off to collect myself and work on other projects. Now, I am involved in several different things, none of which have the potential to make a great deal of income in the future. I am fine with this, and could support myself indefinitely with a modest lifestyle.

My dear fiancée is a hard-charging, independent, successful professional with a good income. She has been through some previous financial difficulties, but those are pretty much behind her now and her future is quite bright. She is a hard worker and has built her career through determination and resilience. For this, along with many other of her traits, I have a lot of respect and admiration.

The bottom line is that I have a lot of money now and don't intend to make very much more, while she has no money now and intends to make a lot. As I said before, most would think this a good problem to have and I very much agree. That being said, it is causing some problems with regards to how we think about money and deal with our merged finances.

Our state is a community property state. Without explicit action, any money one brings into the marriage remains prior separate property, and any money that is made during the marriage is community property. Neither of us is anticipating anything short of a lifelong commitment, so what's the issue? Well, my fiancée has said she is not comfortable with keeping my portfolio as my separate property even with me suggesting I retitle the house immediately to "us." I am not comfortable tossing the portfolio immediately into the community bucket. After much discussion and soul searching, we are at loggerheads. And it's over an issue that we believe will probably never come to pass, despite the real statistics that indicate it's a 50/50 chance.

But my worry is in the remote possibility that something does go wrong, she would be entitled to half of my net worth. Besides the heartbreak, that would force me to cease the lifestyle I have worked hard to create and necessitate moving back into a more traditional career (which I am loath to do). And her worry is that by holding back this money, I am therefore holding back from our marriage and not ready to fully commit. I disagree and feel fully ready to commit -- I guess I might be more pragmatic or just consider love and money in two separate universes? Maybe the emotional heartbreak would so outweigh the financial pain that it doesn't really matter? Maybe this will all be a moot point in five years if/when we have kids?

We can each see the other's point of view. If our scenario was reversed, we each believe we might take the other's opinion. Neither of us wants a prenuptial agreement or anything that romance-killing. We also don't want to keep our financial dealings totally separate as we are in this together for the long haul. Is planning for the worst taking away from the weight of the commitment?

We both come from parents who divorced when we were quite young. I have acquaintances who have endured painful divorces, including several who were well off and were left financially bereft. Yet we are both assuming that we have chosen the right partner and will never have to go through the heartbreak. But I guess every couple who gets married goes into it believing they will not be a statistic.

How can we bridge this gap? How can we think about this such that each of us is happy and satisfied and not feeling taken advantage of? How can we compromise and move on?

Thank you for any assistance you can provide.

Good Problem

Dear Good Problem,

No matter how sure you are now, you cannot say that you won't feel differently in the future. And you cannot deny that unforeseen events may occur. In trying to account for those possibilities, how do you maintain trust?

Maybe a compassionate way to put it is that no matter how good our intentions, we are powerless over our own hearts.

We can promise certain things. We can promise to abide by standards. We can promise to undertake actions, as in a contract. But where does the heart go? Who knows?

That's not the same thing as saying that you're not sure you want to spend your lives together. Of course you are sure. But being sure doesn't make it so. Who knows what hidden needs we are meeting by falling in love? Who knows what happens once those needs are met? Do new needs arise? What of the partner to whom we so passionately cleaved because her one-in-a-million combo of traits so perfectly met our one-in-a-million combo of needs? What happens when those needs are sated? What new needs then arise in their place? Who will meet those needs? Will it be the same person? And how will she know what those new needs are? Was it not more or less an accident that key and lock, desire and fulfillment, meshed so perfectly? How likely is it that such a pair can stay attuned to each other's shifting inventory of wants and weather together unexpected new fissures of the spirit well enough to continue their remarkable and unlikely dance for 30, 40, 50 years? How are they supposed to do that?

I suspect that these kinds of questions bubble beneath the surface of your conversations about money.

In my view, we all stand on the edge of an abyss. It's always there. So is it too much to ask that two people contemplating marriage look into this abyss together and admit to each other that yes, in spite of everything they believe about themselves and each other, this abyss still yawns, bottomless, unfathomable? Could not this sharp shared knowledge increase your bond rather than fray it? Could it not be something like the shared faith that some couples profess? A frank acknowledgment of the limits of self-knowledge and the unknowable future may be as close as some secular people can get to anything resembling a religious feeling. For what you are doing is gesturing toward the vastness and saying, Yes, I recognize how vast it is, and all the implications of its vastness. Maybe you can come together over this shared difficulty.

Psychologists offer practical ways for couples to ease conflict and increase intimacy. But you are still left with yourself, and within you may be a self, or side, that does not trust, that seeks to dominate, that hoards its cash, that plots escape, that is never forthcoming and always politely pushing for advantage. This is the side that often emerges when we talk about money.

OK. So if you can admit to each other that neither one of you fully knows the depths of your own heart, and that coming together in this way is a risk neither of you can fully control or account for, then you can go to your accountant or lawyer or whatnot and talk about some kind of financial agreement you can live with.

One compromise might be an arrangement whereby a part of your separate wealth equal to the difference between what she earns and what you earn each year goes into the shared pot. That way you each contribute the same amount to the community property, yet you get to keep most of the pile that you made outside of the marriage. Maybe some arrangement like that would work.

You don't want either party feeling insecure, nor do you want either party feeling like they're getting taken. See an accountant and a lawyer. And have some sessions with a therapist as well, just to tease out whatever unexpectedly strong feelings there may be under the surface. What to you just sounds like being prudent can sound to others like emotionally holding back.

Though neither of you wants a prenuptial agreement, it may be a fair way to provide for contingencies. Say, for instance, that you want to keep your money, but you also want to give her some assurance that in the unlikely event of divorce she will get some of what you have. Not all of it. Just what seems fair. Maybe there is some formula, so she would know she had rights, and you would know that you had protection, no matter what happens.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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