Vonny Carrington: Sure. One common decision, or at least discussion point that generally comes up is whether to combine assets or to keep everything separate and maintain separate accounts, and I really think it depends on a bunch of factors, which would be including amount of assets or liabilities that each person brings to the table, if one person will take on the role as the home CFO or if it’ll be a co-headed effort, and whether there’ll be shared expenses. I feel like that’s a big question that comes across my desk as I meet with clients in that earlier stage of joining an asset or joining a relationship.
Ben Jones: In your career, have you seen that question evolve over the last 15 years, or has that been a pretty consistent discussion topic?
Vonny Carrington: I think it has kind of evolved. Earlier on, it was a yes or no, and now, you’re seeing yes, maybe, no with a hybrid and not joining all assets, still keeping some separate accounts, but having joint accounts for expenses that are shared, so I think it has evolved over time just kind of as our societal norms have evolved.
Ben Jones: I’m curious, we talk a lot about kind of the financial side of things as financial professionals, but how do finances impact the relationship side, so turning on the therapist hat? How do finances most impact relationships, both the good and the bad there?
Vonny Carrington: Sure. Listen, love’s a powerful emotion and it can push many issues like financial, spending money to the back burner. Love may be blind, but it’s really not an effective way to manage money as a couple. I would say statistics have really shown that a couple’s inability to communicate about their finances is the second leading cause to a breakup, only following infidelity, and having financial discussions can lead to healthy conversations on how each person views and handles their financial affairs. I think people are raised to think differently about saving and spending and how to invest, and financial values that can be instilled from birth, through your parents could potentially clash with financial habits of a romantic partner, so I think it’s really important to have those initial open lines of communication to really reduce that financial surprise factor.
Ben Jones: I like that a lot. I’m curious, the other way around like some of the dynamics of our relationship with money. How does that get impacted by our overall relationship? In other words, do we bring some of the bad habits of our relationship into our finances?
Vonny Carrington: That could certainly happen. I mean, it also can drive a wedge into a relationship. Finances can put a strain on fun relationships when one partner has secret debts or is not forthcoming with spending habits, and this really tends to come to the surface when there’s a time of financial instability, and that’s probably the worst time to be having the conversation, so trying to have the conversation at the time that it’s happening could lead to further relationship complications.
Ben Jones: It makes a lot of sense. Now, you’ve been a financial advisor for a long time, and you work with a lot of well-heeled professionals, as well as co-authors on this paper. I’m curious why you believe that this topic is so important for financial advisors.
Vonny Carrington: Sure. I mean, I think statistics speak for themselves. Half of marriages end in divorce, and many of those financial woes, those financial issues felt after divorce could have really been remedied if there was some premarital planning or at least having a discussion with a financial advisor prior to joining assets, joining lives. I feel like if had those conversations been started earlier, that the results that you see when a marriage or a relationship ends would not have such strife toward the end. There would have been a plan laid out, well-thought about that would mitigate some of the issues that I’ve seen.
Emily Larsen: Oftentimes, doing the hard work upfront can feel harder than dealing with it later, but it really can provide a lot of freedom, and certainly a strong foundation for a relationship when times get tough. In her article, Vonny actually suggests that clients should set money dates with their partners as a formal opportunity to handle these financial conversations and do it early, and so for more specifics on ideal time frames, Ben asked Vonny when a couple should start discussing finances.
Vonny Carrington: I think a good time to start discussing finances is when there’s a plan to start sharing expenses, so I think of when you’re planning to move into an apartment or you’re planning to buy a large-ticket items such as an automobile, that discussion can evolve as the circumstances change, but deciding to buy a home instead of rent or deciding to go forward with marriage, that’s a good time to start, have the conversations at least going, and it’s that time to get over those societal norms or stigmas and put everyone’s ego aside and embrace the conversation.
Ben Jones: Yeah, I like that, so it’s not a first date. You shouldn’t grill people about their finances on the first date, but when things get serious and we decide we’re going to start commingling dollars or purchases, we need to start having those discussions. So I’m curious, how does that discussion change as we move from commingling some expenses to maybe moving in together, to maybe getting married, et cetera? Like how should that discussion evolve over time?
Vonny Carrington: I mean, I liked the idea of setting a money date. To your point, it shouldn’t be the first or second or even third date, it should be as the relationship evolves to something that’s long-term and there’s more of a commitment, but I think it’s a good time to goal-set and to dive into your finances and to talk about the kind of life you want to live together and what path you’ll take to get there. Things that you would want to talk about are cash flow, debt management, any upcoming large expenses or any income changes.
Ben Jones: I like that. I mean, I actually do this with my wife. We have pretty frequent financial money conversations, and we’ve done that for a long time, and I have to say initially, it was somewhat awkward, so I’m curious if you could maybe share a little bit more about this concept of the money date. When should you kind of introduce this practice? How often should it occur, and then how do you approach it? I’m assuming that maybe one partner’s more interested than the other, et cetera. I mean, there’s all sorts of dynamics at play, and maybe share some of your best practices or client experiences here.
Vonny Carrington: Well, I typically will, what I call fall on the sword for my clients, and that kind of extends to their children who are typically in that point in time that they’re looking to start relationships and formalize those relationships. Blame it on the financial advisor and say, “My financial advisor thinks it’s a good idea for us to have a formal discussion and talk about some of the commingling of assets that may occur and what life would look like once we decide to move to that next point in time,” so I would rely on a professional or a financial advisor to kind of help that conversation or start that conversation if you’re having difficulty managing it. And then, I think look at your finances, and it depends on how much assets you’re joining together, whether these meetings should then turn into something that is monthly, quarterly or twice a year. It really depends on the client’s facts and circumstances.
Ben Jones: Yeah. I liked some of the questions that you had in the paper that you wrote. I mean, I think even for somebody who’s in their youth who might not even have a financial advisor that can’t as easily blame it on Vonny, they can at least engage in some of these ways to break down some of the signaling that occurs when people are younger and trying to signal that they have some sort of status, et cetera, and some of these questions are so simple to be done over a drink or a dinner, and, “Do you consider yourself a spender or a saver?,” and, “If you were to have 100 or $1,000, what would you do with it?” Those questions don’t feel as invasive as, “Tell me how much you earn and how you allocate your dollars.”
Vonny Carrington: For sure. I would say that the initial money date should have those high-level questions about spender, saver or what have you, and then as you become more acquainted with the person and as the relationship evolves, then at a later date, you can have the follow-up to that money date and talk about the more granular questions, like the more uncomfortable questions about, “How much do you make and how much do you save? Do you expect an inheritance? Do you expect to have to pay for or take care of family members down the road?” I would say that that is a follow-up conversation to have after you’ve gotten over the baseline questions, as you’ve mentioned.
Ben Jones: I like it, and it’s interesting not to be, too much information, but my wife and I have a similar version of this question that we discuss every year at the end of the year, which is, “If you were to have $100 or $1,000 to spend to most increase your happiness, how would you spend it?,” and one of the interesting things of that question over the last several years of us kind of discussing that around the holidays is that we’ve found that actually, it’s much easier to answer the $100 question than the $1,000 question, and the reason is that most of the things that bring us joy in life don’t cost a lot of money.
Vonny Carrington: That’s great, and I mean, I honestly think that having a conversation that’s not as formal, you could ask those questions, and things that will kind of pique interest would also include asking about the person’s most extravagant purchase or their proudest financial moment, and it tends to be an eye-opener for laying out the person’s method of approaching both.
Ben Jones: Yeah, I agree, and so many money habits are learned behaviors from our parents, and that leads me to wonder, what are some of the strategies that you as an advisor can suggest or employ to help couples improve their communications around money, because I have noticed in an observation that there’s usually one person in the couple that’s very motivated around these topics and one person that’s less interested?
Vonny Carrington: That can be true. In some instances, both are interested, so it really depends on the person, but I do think including a third-party does kind of help ease that situation in terms of being able to have and open the conversation. I would make sure that each party comes to the table with a host of questions and an outline so that there’s nothing missed or omitted in that conversation. At that point, once all the goals and objectives have been outlined, it really depends on the status of the relationship and whether there’s momentum to move toward a long-term commitment that would then help address questions such as whether to open a joint account and how it could be potentially funded.
Ben Jones: Now, one of the interesting stats I took from the paper was that it was interesting to me that you listed some of the reasons for financial deception based on a survey conducted by The Harris Poll, and over half of the responses as to why someone would deceive their partner around their finances were related to their fear of disapproval or that they believed that they should keep their finances private from a partner, so there still is a taboo associated with kind of, even when you’re together with someone, discussing poor decisions or any financial decisions for that matter.
Vonny Carrington: I would agree on that. If you’ve decided to hide an expense because you don’t want your partner to know about it, and it’s an extravagant expense and it leads to you not being able to accomplish another goal or objective that you’ve set, that’s going to come to a head at some point, and so pick your poison. Do you want to deceive today or do you want to deceive down the road, and then have it ultimately affect or impact your relationship negatively? I try to stress that to my clients and to other people, that you have to kind of get over that stigma. You have to get over that issue of feeling like you should keep things separate because ultimately, if there is an issue, it’s going to come out at the backend and it might impact your relationship.
Ben Jones: No matter what stage of a relationship your clients are in, they can all benefit from having consistent money conversations, AKA the money date. Now, this is something that you can advocate for as an advisor. Vonny said that the frequency of couple’s money dates will depend on their situation, but it sounds like erring on the side of more often is usually better than less often. Now, I mentioned my wife and I have a version of this, and what we have found is that our money date works best weekly, every Thursday night, after the kids go down, if I’m being really precise. Now, let’s dive into some more specific actions for different relationship stages. Oftentimes, financial advisors are working with people who are later in life, but the first stage that you talk about is when you’re younger or you’re kind of newly committed in a relationship, and then even when you’re newly committed, kind of middle-aged in a relationship, so let’s talk a little bit about the concept of, “Okay, I’m newly committed. We’re moving in together.” What are the topics that advisors need to prompt their clients to start talking about?
Vonny Carrington: I think it’s the good time to discuss what everyone’s mantra for savings and debt accumulation is. You need to, back to that point of confirm whether that person is a saver or spender or a combination of both. That could have changed from the earlier part in the relationship to now, and you need to ask those questions so that you can come up with a goal for that second money date meeting to make sure that you’re all both on the same page. I would say at that point, if the relationship is moving on to a longer-term commitment, that we should look at the notion of prenups. A prenuptial agreement, it seems taboo, it’s been a controversial topic, but it’s a powerful planning tool that I like to address and bring up with clients upfront so that it’s not as you’re about to walk down the aisle, that it’s a discussion that you’re having at that point.
Ben Jones: I’m curious on prenups. I mean, they do have a negative connotation as you alluded to, but are prenups for people who are mid-life and have already created some assets, or do they make sense for younger, less asset accumulation, no kids, no joint pets, et cetera?
Vonny Carrington: Sure. I think it depends on circumstances, so you could have someone who’s mid-career and has accumulated a good amount of wealth or a substantial amount of wealth, and they would want to protect that assets if that was their choice, and so they could create an arrangement in which the assets that they came to the marriage with are assets that they would leave the marriage with if it were to dissolve. Then, even if you are young and up-and-coming and don’t have assets on your own, I think of someone who works for a big tech company and might come into some wealth down the road, or as a scientist and is working on some type of project that will lead to a prosperous amount of wealth. Would they want to protect that if the asset or if that were to come to fruition right as the marriage was about to dissolve? Would that be something you’d want to share or split with a spouse or would you want that protected? I really think it depends on the individual and I wouldn’t just cherry-pick who to talk to it about based off of age or based off of level of assets at this point.
Ben Jones: Let’s talk a little bit about this idea that you brought up earlier, which is this, do you combine assets or do you not? Can you walk through some of the pros and cons of combining assets and this hybrid approach that you mentioned earlier?
Vonny Carrington: Sure. If you combine assets, then it’s easier to pay joint bills, it’s easier to know how much money is in the pot to save for a joint goal or joint objective. In some cases, you might get benefits from a financial institution for having higher balances, presuming that you’re both commingling your assets, putting it in one pot and having access to higher-yielding checking accounts or money managers if that’s your ultimate goal. The downside of commingling assets would be maybe not feeling as if you’re both bringing the same amount to the table. It’s not as clearly defined. After the pot has been created, it’s harder to delineate between who made the contribution, and then I also think that if there was to be a dissolution of the relationship, then it makes it all that much more difficult to separate the assets upon that event.
Ben Jones: How does one go about deciding which is the best approach? I mean, as a financial advisor, maybe you could give an example of a time you’ve helped counsel someone where each partner had a different agreement.
Vonny Carrington: Sure. For a client that was planning to marry, they decided to join assets because they were also going to be buying a house alongside getting married, and they needed to show that they have a down payment, and so they made a decision to put the assets in an account that was joint registered and use that money to buy a house that they ultimately own jointly. Another client came to me who was in the midst of getting an inheritance and actually expected more inheritance down the road, and so that client decided to keep assets separate so that if something were to happen down the road, the assets that were inherited would not be considered marital property, and therefore split if the marriage were to dissolve.
Ben Jones: Great. I appreciate that. Thank you. Now, I’m curious, one of the questions I had is as you’re newly committed, at what point do you undertake the idea of kind of setting goals together or financial goals, and is that important to do in the newly committed stage or does that need to wait till you’re more committed or marriage?
Vonny Carrington: I think it’s very helpful to at least outline some basic goals and objectives at this point because you want to make sure that you’re on the same page from a financial perspective. If one person’s goal long-term is to own the biggest yacht, and the other person’s goal is to have as much possible saved for retirement, you should probably know that before you move to the next step in the relationship, so I do think that there should be at least a baseline set of goals and objectives outlined at this stage in order to make sure that you’re on the same page.
Ben Jones: Let’s move on to the next stage real quick, which is more committed or even legally binding marriage, so you’ve gone through this newly committed stage, you’ve now entered a new phase of your relationship and you need to start having deeper conversations about money. What kind of financial goals should you be setting and what are some of the key considerations that couples need to consider kind of in this more committed or legally binding stage?
Vonny Carrington: Sure. I really feel like pretty much every aspect of the client’s financial picture is somehow impacted by a marriage. For example, a married couple will need to make a decision regarding taxes. How will they file? Will they file jointly or will they file separately? You really do have to crunch the numbers to look at which filing status will yield the greatest tax savings, and in some cases, debt such as student loans, which may be tied to one person’s income would impact the decision to file jointly versus separately, so I really do think it comes down to running the numbers, crunching the numbers on an individual basis. The next thing that I think is impacted are your employee benefit plans. If both spouses are working, it’ll really depend on the family health situation and what health plans are offered through each employer, once again, assuming that both have access to an employer sponsored health insurance plan. The next thing would be looking at beneficiary designations, such as your IRAs or any company sponsored retirement plans, if you have a pension, if you’re lucky enough to have a pension and life insurance, just making sure that you designate your spouse as the beneficiary if that’s your long-term goal. You’ll want to create a will, and this really comes into play down the road, especially if you decide to have children so that you set up guardians, but you want to leave instructions on how to manage your financial affairs should you pass away. Another thing, which I don’t think is looked at as much as it should be is disability insurance, because studies show that an employee is more likely to become disabled during their career as opposed to passing away early, and leaving a spouse with only 50 or 60% of income at that point could be detrimental from a financial perspective.
Emily Larsen: Vonny’s article mentions the concept of the After I’m Gone book, and this is a one-stop shop for spouses to leave instructions for accessing important resources in case something bad should happen. These might be websites, passwords, contacts, or even instructions for managing finances and affairs. As we move into discussing divorce, death and disability, it’s important to keep in mind that prepping both partners for difficult outcomes is tough, but a necessary part of the job.
Ben Jones: Divorce is unfortunate, but it does happen quite often in our society today, and it could get pretty complicated to work through, so there is such thing as a certified divorce financial analyst, and we actually had the head of that curriculum on the program in Episode 37, so we’ll link to that in the show notes in case people want to really dive into the nuanced details of what a certified divorce financial analyst does, but I’m curious from your perspective, having had clients go through this, why is it important to have a financial expert to help you and your attorney work through kind of the nuances of untangling a financial life?
Vonny Carrington: Sure. Working with a financial advisor in that terrible time of your life can really make the difference between a success story or a disaster, so a shrewd divorce attorney may not be the best person for a tax advisor perspective. They usually can’t issue-spot the tax implications of making some financial decisions. I think a good example of this would be the decision to take possession of a $5 million investment account versus a $5 million retirement account or a $5 million home. Well, the $5 million investment account might make more sense for the younger client with near-term cash needs. The $5 million retirement account could make sense for a client that’s like retirement age and wouldn’t have to pay withdrawal penalties for withdrawing the money too early, and then finally, a $5 million retirement home might make sense for a client that expects an inheritance down the road, has positive cash flow, or some other means to cover the carrying costs of that home, so the divorce attorney might not make the most prudent decision for that client’s individual plans. Having a financial advisor involved would help make that decision based on the client’s needs. A financial advisor can show how long the money and the assets are getting in a divorce will last. They’ll make sure that your, keep spending at a current pace that’s within your bandwidth of assets that you have access to, and we can help with negotiating your settlement based on those projections. I think it’s basically just a resource that you would tap to make any long-term financial decisions.
Ben Jones: Do you have any suggestion for advisors, based on your experience, when you’re navigating some of the more emotionally charged topics in divorce?
Vonny Carrington: Yes. I would say tread lightly, stay away from using any type of derogatory words when talking about the spouse that you’re not working with, and if you were used to working with both spouses, the best thing to do in order to avoid any type of conflicts of interest would be to work with only one of the spouses and have the other spouse secure their own financial advisor. It’s way too complicated. You will be wrapped up into things that you should have no business being wrapped up into by trying to work with both spouses that are about to go through a divorce.
Ben Jones: Excellent. Now, we talked a little bit about these emotionally charged topics during a divorce, but I’d love to kind of get your perspective on life after divorce. What are kind of the checklist of items? Oftentimes, we kind of think the divorce culminates in the agreement, but there’s a lot of things that need to be done after that, so what are the important things to do in life after divorce?
Vonny Carrington: Sure. I think it’s very important to put together what I call a post-divorce action item list. You’re going to want to make sure that your investment accounts are retitled. If you’ve had joint accounts or if you’ve had a payable on death or a transfer on death designation on account to your now ex-spouse, you want to make sure that those are removed. You want to make sure that your retirement accounts have been properly divided, and you’re going to want to update the beneficiary designations on those accounts. If you do not want them to go to your spouse, you’ll want to update your personal documents, such as your driver’s license. You want to make sure social security is up-to-date, and you also want to update your passport. Then, you’ll have to brush off your wills and your other estate planning documents, which may have directed assets be left to that spouse, that now ex-spouse. That ex-spouse may have had a financial power of attorney over you. You want to make sure that’s removed if that’s your choice. They may have had a healthcare proxy, so they might’ve been your healthcare power of attorney. You may want to also just address that if that’s not what you’d like to have happened post-divorce, and then you’ll also want to make sure that any other accounts that had a beneficiary designation have been updated.
Ben Jones: Whoa, that was a long, invaluable checklist. You might just want to hit rewind 30 seconds and make sure that you’ve jotted down all of those items. Now, there’s another aspect of breaking up a relationship that is also tragic, and that is the death of a spouse or widowhood, so I’m curious from your perspective. Now, we’ve covered this with Dr. Amy D’Aprix in Episode 49, something that we deemed Suddenly Single, but I’m curious from your perspective, what are the key kind of problems that couples experience when they go through widowhood or that we didn’t cover?
Vonny Carrington: I think that there is a financial shock if there haven’t been recent conversations regarding finances. There typically is a shock when the surviving spouse was not either a co-head CFO or the CFO of the family, if they were the one relying on the spouse that has now passed away, that they might not even know how to get into a safe deposit box. They might not even know the codes and passwords and log-in credentials to get into accounts, and so that can be an additional shock and pouring salt into a wound that’s already open by grieving your lost spouse, so I think you have to give some time and give some grief, some time to digest that grief, and then you slowly but surely tackle the action items that would need to happen in order to kind of unlock access to personal accounts and investment accounts.
Ben Jones: Now, Vonny, before we wrap up here, you’ve been very generous with your time, but I got to ask, what is the question that I should’ve asked you that I didn’t?
Vonny Carrington: That’s a good question. I think a good question is, “What happens in a disability?,” because that could occur in any of these different levels that we’ve discussed, and how do you plan around that? It typically is an impactful situation post-marriage disability issues. If the spouses have become dependent upon each other’s income, what would happen if the income was cut 50% to 60% of what they’re used to taking home? Have they thought about the planning of that? Would that mean they’d have to sell a house? Would that mean they’d have to downsize or get rid of some automobiles or what have you? I think that that is an awkward discussion point to have, but it should be included in part of the money date and also in part of the financial planning when you are in a committed relationship.
Ben Jones: Disability is a critical planning topic at every stage of one’s life. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to have that conversation with your clients and create optionality in the event the tragedy strikes. As you can tell, communication and planning are critical to help clients get comfortable managing their finances together. Advisors can play an important role in encouraging, instigating, and in some cases even, facilitating those important dialogues. I want to thank Vonny for coming onto the show and sharing all of these insights about managing money together as a couple. We’ll put a link to her paper in the show notes, and until next time, here’s some parting thoughts from Vonny. As the advisor, what does it feel like when you get the managing money together conversation right with your clients?
Vonny Carrington: I am not a baseball fan, but I will use the saying, “It feels like hitting a home run with the bases loaded.” It’s a great sense of accomplishment, you really feel gratified, and it brings you closer to being that client’s trusted advisor, which is your ultimate goal, or if you’re already there, it just shows why that person’s working with you, and they’ll continue to work with you long-term.
Ben Jones: If you’re the client and your advisor gets this discussion right throughout your life stages, what does it feel like to be that client?
Vonny Carrington: It feels they have the same level of gratification. It basically reinforces their decision to work with a financial advisor and reinforces the notion that they can’t always get it right themselves. Maybe they get close, but they have that security blanket to lean on and depend on in situations like this. And it makes them more likely to refer you to their friends, family and other colleagues, so it becomes a referral source, and they’re happy to do it because you did your job correctly.
Ben Jones: If you were to write your own Surgeon General’s warning label on our conversation today, what would that warning label say?
Vonny Carrington: It would say, “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” You have to communicate with your partner and you have to communicate with a trusted professional.
Ben Jones: Vonny, anything else you’d like to share with the listeners today?
Vonny Carrington: I think that love and emotion is a great place to be. We are human beings. We tend to need that sense of relationship, and if we can reduce or mitigate the other variables that come into play that could impact negatively that love, that emotion, let’s do it.
Ben Jones: Thank you for listening to Better conversations. Better outcomes. This podcast is presented by BMO Global Asset Management. To access the resources discussed in today’s show, please visit us at www.bmogam.com/betterconversations.
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