Pop quiz. Do you know how much your significant other makes a year? Many don't. In our survey of couples, 43% couldn’t correctly identify how much their spouse makes.1 And that’s even though most couples (72%) say they communicate exceptionally or very well about financial matters.
While not knowing your partner’s salary may seem like a small detail, it’s important for each half of a couple to have a clear picture of the household’s finances. What if something happens? When it comes to money and marriage, ignorance is not bliss.
“It was surprising how many didn't know their spouse’s salary,” says Ann Dowd, CFP® and vice president at Fidelity. “It seems to indicate that many couples aren't talking about basic financial matters.”
Indeed, our survey revealed that many couples had a knowledge gap on managing finances, saving for retirement, and retirement income, as well.
What to do
First, ask your partner what he or she makes… and then talk about these four things, as a way to get started.
1. The basics: a list of financial accounts
Chances are each of you has a number of financial accounts—checking, savings, mortgage, credit card, investment, 401(k), IRA, etc. Make sure you at least know which accounts you each have and where they are. Creating a spreadsheet with account numbers is a great way to keep track of them. It can help lay the foundation for the investment decisions that you might have to make later. It can also help you get organized by taking an inventory of all your accounts. Consider using secure virtual safes, such as FidSafe®2 to store the list.
2. Account beneficiaries: no matter what age you are
Having a beneficiary for retirement and investment accounts and insurance policies is as important as writing a will. Assets in these accounts pass directly to the beneficiaries you've designated with your account custodian, trustee, or plan administrator—and generally supersede any instructions in your will.
It’s not hard to name—or update—beneficiaries on financial accounts. Most financial service providers let you do it online. Naming beneficiaries on all accounts can help avoid legal complications in the event of a death.
Retirement accounts. You can name beneficiaries on your retirement accounts, such as 401(k) accounts and IRAs. If you are married, keep in mind that some employer-sponsored retirement plans automatically designate your spouse as the beneficiary unless you name another beneficiary and your spouse has consented in writing. Check with your company.
Nonretirement accounts. Designating beneficiaries on a nonretirement bank account or brokerage account may establish a "transfer-on-death" (TOD) registration for the account. It allows ownership of the account to be transferred to a designated beneficiary upon your death.
3. Be ready: What to do if your other half dies or becomes disabled
No matter your age, it makes sense to be prepared for the unexpected. Each half of a couple should have these three documents and discuss their wishes with each other:
A will or a living trust and “pour-over” will combination. A will is an essential legal document that sets forth your wishes regarding the distribution of your property and the care of any minor children when you die. A pour-over will is established by an individual, often in conjunction with a trust. Upon the death of the individual, all or a portion of his or her assets can be transferred—or “poured over”—to a trust. By doing so, an individual can ensure that his or her estate has explicit directions on moving estate assets to a trust. Additionally, a properly structured pour-over will may alleviate the burden of requiring the estate to undergo an often costly and lengthy public probate process.
A power of attorney appoints an agent to act on your behalf regarding financial and other matters while you are alive. It is in effect if you become incapacitated and unable to handle matters on your own.
A health care proxy names a person, or persons, who can make health care decisions for you if you are unable to communicate. In general, it outlines your wishes regarding life-prolonging medical treatments and may vary depending on your state of residence. It becomes effective only under the circumstances stated in the document.
4. Emergency planning: Know where important legal documents are
It’s not uncommon for couples to keep important documents in different places, or in a fireproof safety deposit box. The last two years of tax returns, marriage and birth certificates, insurance policies, wills, and health care proxies are a few of the things both partners need to know where to find. Designate a specific place for them. You can either store your estate plan and other important documents in your attorney’s office or select a fireproof place—such as a bank safety deposit box—that someone close to you can access in an emergency. Again, consider using secure virtual safes, such as FidSafe®2, to store copies of important documents and other information, such as passwords, financial statements, and wills.
Of course, there are many more financial issues for partners to talk about, but these four are essential. Once you have the initial talk, remember to check things at least once a year too. A convenient time to touch base may be at the end of the year, at the beginning of the year, or when you are preparing tax returns.