It's long been the lament of family law attorneys representing wives in separation and divorce cases. All too often, women arrive to this place in their lives with little to no knowledge of the family's finances. Many have been homemakers and mothers to the children - with no involvement in earning an income or managing the household's money matters.
If they get a look at the family's financial state, it may be a quick glimpse at the joint income tax return they sign, assuming the couple files jointly. If they file separately, they may have no idea what their spouse makes.
In those situations, the woman - or, to be fair, a growing number of men who have given up what may have been a less lucrative career to allow the spouse to work while the man handled the household - is at a loss. Should separation come, the homemaker's lack of knowledge can be a devastating reality in divorce negotiations or proceedings.
Instead, women should be prepared now - even if they enjoy a stable, loving marriage with no hint of marital strife.
First, become aware of your financial situation and the entire portfolio of marital assets. How much money does the household have? What types of accounts and assets - checking, savings, brokerage investments, real estate holdings, etc. - do you jointly own? Ask. After all, they're your assets, too.
Second, demand access from your spouse to all the joint or family financial accounts. Get the log-in credentials for online access to banking, brokerage, investment or credit card accounts, and know where paper statements are kept in the home. Have access to or possession of copies of financial records; legal documents; income tax returns; deeds to real property; insurance policies; personal estates, wills and trusts; even vehicle registrations or titles.
Next, have independent means and assets. If - totally by surprise - your spouse closed or changed passwords to all the family accounts today and served you with divorce papers, how would you get money needed to live day to day? Open your own credit card or cards and insist on having separate bank account independent of and beyond his reach.
Finally, be prepared for a legal battle - just in case. When separation or divorce come as a "bolt out of the blue," many spouses care caught completely off guard. Having resources can help not only with living expenses, but in waging a suitable defense with a qualified legal team. If you are planning to leave your spouse, setting aside money in advance for future expenses can ensure you're financially prepared.
That said, even if the homemaker has limited means, a divorce attorney can immediately file a motion for temporary attorney's fees to be paid by the spouse with assets. The belief is that both sides have the right to litigate on equal footing - especially if one side has access to assets the other does not.
News of your spouse's intent to separate or divorce can come as a surprise. Don't be caught off guard. Prepare now. Besides, even if you live the rest of your lives together "happily ever after," having a handle on your personal finances is good practice.