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Portfolio > Asset Managers

Advising Separate But Equal Boomers

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Time was when husbands used to joke that “what’s mine is ours, and what’s hers is hers.” That was an era when men were the major breadwinners in married couples and when the wives who had jobs often said they were working for “pin money.” Today, younger people–including younger boomers–are singing a different tune. And it’s no joke. The new message is: “What’s mine is mine, what’s hers/his is hers/his, and what we put in the common pot is ours.”

Financial advisors say they are definitely encountering couples who maintain separate finances along those lines. The old “joint account” approach for everything is no longer a given.

So, how do advisors work with such couples?

“You have to address their goals, just as with couples using the traditional joint accounts,” says Don A. Taylor, PhD., an associate professor of finance at the American College, Bryn Mawr, Pa. He teaches financial planning and was himself a financial advisor earlier in his career.

“And, where there are separate goals, you have to address them.”

For instance, if the wife wants to retire at age 55 but the husband wants to keep on working, that needs to be factored into the planning and arrangements, Taylor says.

(With non-married couples, the goal assessment would be the same. However, “non-marrieds should also establish a property agreement up-front, so if there is a split later on, the two won’t have to sort through who gets what,” Taylor cautions.)

Having separate finances is not necessarily a bad trend for the financial advisor, points out Keith Newcomb, a wealth manager with Full Life Financial LLC, Nashville, Tenn. For instance, it can be an advantage in making use of the annual exclusion amount for gifting and the Unified Credit for estate taxes.

In fact, he says he sometimes encourages older people who are accustomed to joint-titling of assets to consider separate titles.

Some older clients are not comfortable with re-titling separately, he allows. “They may have had a joint bank account, joint brokerage account and join ownership of the family home for years,” he says. “However, when it makes for greater tax efficiencies, most do settle things.”

It is the younger boomers and people in generation X who are more inclined to have separate accounts from the start, Newcomb observes. “We know about it only anecdotally. But I am seeing it more frequently than in the past.”

In his experience, the reasons for the separate ownership are varied. Some people waited a long time to get married, so they are comfortable having their own accounts, he says. “Others have gotten remarried and don’t want to blend assets. In other cases, the spouses both work and they like having a sense of separate contribution to the wealth of the household.”

Also, the relationship dynamics are a factor, he says.

When it comes to funding retirement assets such as long term care insurance or an annuity, the advisor needs to work with the couple to determine how much each will contribute, suggests Taylor.

“For instance, will the funding be based on the proportion of income that each spouse brings in? Will it be paid for at the employer through payroll deduction? If it’s a spousal IRA, who will pay for it?”

When incomes are disparate, there may be greater need for discussion about who pays what, he says. “But there should be room for negotiation and compromise. Maybe, if the husband earns more, he will pay 60% for her LTC policy and she will pay 40%.”

Taylor recommends taking a holistic, portfolio approach to such questions.

Present the issue from a “retirement is ours” position, even if assets are divided when going into the planning, he suggests. Also, take a look at the past history of how the couple has funded things in the past.

“Emphasize that this is not a ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ part of their lives. Encourage them to think of their investment horizon and what is right for them as a couple.”

If the couple has open and effective communication, the going will be easier, notes Newcomb.

“For instance, if they can agree on individual and family goals, that can point to planning solutions that may or may not be affected by the partners’ desire to keep things separate.”

If the couple has had separate accounts for many years, most times they will be able keep them separate and still make effective decisions, Newcomb continues. “What they do is consolidate things for practical reasons and common goals. They will even gift things back and forth to reach the goals.”

The discussion always comes down to allocating the expense, Taylor points out. If one or the other spouse does not like the recommended allocation, the planner needs to work with the couple to find a solution that works for both, he says.

Similarly, if the husband wants one product–say a life-only annuity–that leaves the wife without any income should the husband die first, the planner will need to work with the couple to “show the impact of that decision on the other spouse.”

His advice: “Don’t just focus on the income stream now. Also look at the impact over the lifetime of both.” The advisor needs to understand mortality as well as what is going on with the couple, he adds.

Sample situation: Assume that the husband’s finances are heavy on the equities side while the wife’s assets are primarily in money market accounts.

“The advisor’s responsibility is to educate them and help them find their risk tolerance as a couple and their shared goals,” says Taylor. The couple could then invest for that, without co-mingling assets, he says. It may work out that the husband throttles back while the wife ramps up on equity exposure, and they may even adopt the same allocation–say 60% stocks, 30% bonds and 10% cash.

This way, the assets are blended on each side for the common goal. An added advantage: “If the couple breaks up later on, each will be appropriately invested, without too much volatility.”

The planning process could uncover that the spouses have some significant financial discrepancies, Taylor points out. Examples are cases where one spouse is an excessive spendthrift or has substantially more money than the other.

His suggestion: “Focus on what is going on today. Seek ways to help them achieve a balance between their current consumption and saving for the future.”

And remember, he says, “both sides need to understand what is going on and both need to get what they want out of life.”

Newcomb says he has never encountered a spouse who has intentionally withheld money to pay the premium for a product the other spouse needs and wants. “That’s not going to happen unless there are secrets in the relationship,” he says.

But when there are conflicts, he says, “I insist they work it out. I leave the room and give them as much time as they need.”

The goal then is consensus-building, involving mutual and separate goals and resources. “If there’s no consensus, it almost turns into an auction,” says Newcomb.

If the couple is unwilling to communicate and develop consensus, that puts a strain on the couple and presents challenges to the planner, he adds. “It’s born of mistrust and is much more difficult to handle.”

Taylor says it is important that the advisor not urge couples to pool assets.

“Respect the history of the relationship and what they are looking for. Don’t push them into joint or separate accounts. Instead, focus on the planning process, and on how the spouses already manage their money. Help them identify their life goals and how to achieve them.”


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