Family Law

Before Marriage: A Checklist of Financial Issues to Consider

By Amy Castillo, J.D., University of Minnesota School of Law
Feeling like your upcoming marriage could be a financial disaster? Read through this list of items you should discuss with your partner.

One of the less-glamorous—but most important—things that you should do before you walk down the aisle and commit yourself to marriage is to sit down with your partner and discuss financial issues you’ll be facing once you're a married couple. According to the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts, “money issues” cause 22% of all divorces in America, so talking about your finances before you’re married can save you a lot of future anxiety and heartache.

Do either of you have children together or with someone else right now, or do you plan to have children in the future?

Children introduce many variables into your future financial planning. If one or both of you already has children from another relationship, you should show each other any court orders that may have been issued, such as child support, custody, and orders for health and dental insurance or extracurricular activities. Both of you need to realize that if the existing custody order ever changes, you could be on the hook for more child support.

What about children you may have in the future? You need to discuss your expectations. For example, does one of you want to be a stay-at-home parent? If so, is that acceptable to the other parent, and is the other parent willing to be the sole breadwinner for the family? If both of you want to work, will you be able to afford daycare until the child is old enough to go to school? And speaking of school, do either or both of you want the child to go to private school, or to take expensive lessons or engage in extracurricular activities? Do you expect to start saving for your child’s college tuition? The time to discuss all these things is now, before you get married.

Do either or both of you need a premarital agreement?

If you and your partner have very few assets, it’s less likely that you need a premarital agreement. But if either of you are coming into the marriage with your own, individual assets, it’s a good idea for both of you to consult with an experienced family lawyer and explore the possibility of using a prenup.

What kind of debt do each of you have?

There’s no way around this discussion. The amount of debt each of you have—and your resulting credit score—can either hurt or benefit the financial choices you’ll make later as a couple. Talk about all kinds of debt and get it all out on the table—credit card debt, court judgments and garnishments, medical debt, child support arrearages, automobile loans, you name it. You need to share all of this information with each other so you get a clear picture of what kind of decisions you can make later, as a married couple. For instance, if you want to buy a house right away, but your partner’s credit score is horrible, you need to decide whether you can live with postponing your dream of home ownership.

What kind of assets do each of you have?

Share a list of assets with each other, and discuss how you obtained them and whether you consider them to be yours alone. Include:

  • automobiles, boats, RVs, motorcycles, ATVs, and similar vehicles that you’ve fully paid off
  • jewelry, collectibles, memorabilia, and other expensive personal items
  • bank accounts, including the amount available in each one
  • real property (buildings) that either of you own or rent out to others
  • pensions and retirement accounts, and
  • anything else you own that’s of value.

What is your employment history and your current employment?

Talk about your respective work histories. Is one of you more employable than the other and more likely to advance rapidly on a career path? Has one of you been working dead-end jobs in order to make ends meet? Talk it over so you get a sense of what the future holds for you.

What is your projected standard of living?

You should discuss how you see the future. Does one of you expect to be able to spend money on whatever is desired, whereas the other partner anticipates frugal living with a yearly vacation? What does “frugal” even mean to each of you? You need to sort out what your expectations are and how you can harmonize them.

What are your banking preferences?

Some couples are surprised to find that they have totally different ideas of how they will bank their money. Some people want one joint account for everything, whereas others want one joint account for marital debts and separate accounts for everything else. Still others want each spouse to take responsibility for paying different debts and set up accounts accordingly. It’s best to discuss this well before you marry, so there are no unpleasant surprises.

What about retirement?

Unless you’re very young, you’re probably going into your marriage with a retirement plan of one sort or another. Both of you should sit down with your retirement account(s) paperwork and talk about your long-term goals and how to achieve them. Don’t hesitate to consult a family law attorney or a CPA to make a rock-solid plan for your future.

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