The traditional wedding vow in western weddings goes along the lines of, “I take you to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” If you think about the vow, you are promising your ever lasting love and loyalty regardless of a person’s finances and health (among other things). I find it very interesting that finances (for richer, for poorer) are an integral part of the wedding vow, because my experience in family law is that often neither party seems to really know what is happening with the finances of the “marriage.”
The not-knowing-marital finances divorces tend to fall into two archetypes. The first is that there is the breadwinner model where one party works and produces most of the income. For some reason, the higher income earner is very aware of the parties’ finances, assets, and debts, while their spouse is oblivious as to such matters. In divorce, this creates the unfortunate dynamic where one is accusing the other of hiding funds and resources, and the other denies any wrongdoing and attributes the other’s accusations to ineptitude. With such a dynamic overhanging the divorce process, it makes settlement nearly impossible because no one can agree on what are the actual debts or assets at play.
The second archetype is the divided household model, where the two parties make the same or nearly the same income. The other variation on this is where one used to make the higher income, but now the other spouse has the higher income. In this instance, the parties may or may not be aware of the entire amount of marital assets, but their general concern is protecting what they perceive as “theirs.” Alimony tends to not be a big issue in these instances, with the expectation that both parties do not want to have to provide any future support to the other. However, what does happen is the parties will tend to focus on what sort of gifts each has made to the other and how they should be compensated for that gift now that the marriage is ending. You also see this where one may have taken out a loan for the other, such as in support of a business venture, and the loaning spouse feels the entire loan belongs to the other to handle and take over.
Now not every couple is oblivious to the marital finances. Plenty of times the parties do know what the other has and really the argument is only what they agree to as a fair apportionment, but it is always so surprising to see how often couples are just unaware of what is financially going on in their household. As an attorney, knowledge of the marital property can be the greatest hurdle to reaching a compromise and expediting the divorce process. If my client is convinced their husband/wife is withholding important information, it can lead down the rabbit hole that is discovery and expand the cost of litigation enormously.
My takeaway from these experiences is that it is important to talk to your spouse about the finances. I understand that may not be an easy conversation to have. It could turn into an argument where each party flings accusations of hiding important marital funds from the other. It could also turn into an argument about control regarding how the marital funds are spent. However, it is a necessary conversation but not because of divorce. Keeping yourself aware (you do not need to be an expert on the matter) and involved in all parts of your marriage is, in my opinion, key to a successful marriage. If you have kids, you need to keep abreast of what is happening in their development. If you have assets or debts, you need to keep aware of how they are being managed.
Plenty of couples divide and conquer. The problem becomes when we are blind to the aspects of the marriage that we took a solemn vow to watch over together.