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When love and money mix – a woman’s guide to finance in a relationship

Published Dec 15, 2021

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By Roz Wrottesley

Whatever cocktail of emotions drives a couple to make a lifelong commitment to each other, optimism is an essential ingredient, not least when it comes to money.

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Yet, for all the benefits of togetherness, from shared costs to tax breaks, it is indisputable that women tend to be the losers when plans and expectations derail, and are more likely to face a financial crisis after the departure or death of a life partner – whether they are married or not. If there’s anything we have learnt from the global pandemic, it is that life can change very suddenly in ways that are inconceivable in the good times.

Even in the normal scheme of things, there is more at stake financially for women than men in lifelong relationships. For men, the priority is to work and earn well for as long as it takes. The focus is on maximising skills and opportunities and providing options for the family. As long as they succeed financially by the prevailing standards, it’s job done for men.

For women it is rarely that simple. Inequality is still baked into the world of work and into social norms in many sectors of society, from the most affluent to the poorest. Women tend to be the secondary earners and are well aware from the start that work might be interrupted, limited, or cut short by child-bearing and/or other family responsibilities. We are the compromisers and that can leave us dependent on our partners and on chance in an uncertain world.

So don’t take money for granted in the security of a committed relationship. There are many things to think about, starting with the status of the relationship: marriage or cohabitation? If marriage, which regime should you go for?

MARITAL REGIMES

Lianne Lutz, a registered financial planner and founder of Women’s Wealth in Johannesburg, outlines the main features of the three options that are open to you:

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1. In community of property

There is no contract; it is the default mode.

You share all assets and liabilities. This includes debt, so if your spouse-to-be has a lot of debt when you marry, or accumulates debt later, you are equally responsible for it.

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Similarly, the insolvency of one means the insolvency of both. Neither party has protection against the misfortunes of their spouses.

On the plus side, it provides equality. The parties are entitled to an equal share of the joint estate throughout the marriage, as well as in the event of divorce, and they have the same powers over the administration of the estate.

2. Out of community of property without accrual

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You sign an antenuptial contract (antenuptial contract) before you marry, to ensure that your estates remain entirely separate. It’s a case of each to his/her own, both in marriage and in the event of divorce.

You declare your assets before marriage and whatever you acquire after that is your own, whatever the source: earnings, investment returns, inheritance, gifts, and so on. There is no obligation on either party to share their assets, or to take responsibility for the debt or insolvency of the other.

Since the accumulation of wealth by one partner does not affect the estate of the other, the process of getting divorced may be quicker and less costly.

On the negative side, an antenuptial contract may be used to protect the assets of one spouse from the other from the start. A woman without financial means of her own might sign up because she supports financial independence, without realising that it leaves her without protection if her ability to work and earn is compromised by circumstances in future.

Spouses whose contribution to the prosperity of the partnership is unpaid (usually, but not always, women) need to ensure that they are remunerated appropriately during the marriage.

3. Out of community of property with accrual

This regime retains the separation of estates at the time of marriage, but recognises couples as equal partners during the course of the marriage by splitting any growth in assets equally. It is widely accepted as the fairest form of marriage and applies automatically if an antenuptial contract does not specifically exclude accrual.

The estates of the marriage partners are valued before marriage and again in the event of divorce. Each partner retains his/her original estate, but the assets acquired during the marriage are divided equally. A few assets may be excluded from the accrual calculation: anything inherited, any assets that are specifically excluded in the terms of the antenuptial contract, and any gifts or donations exchanged between the partners.

It’s important to note that the accrual system does not apply to debt. This protects the parties as intended by the antenuptial contract, but it does mean that it may be more difficult for the spouse with less financial power to obtain credit during the marriage.

Spousal support

Whatever the marital regime, being legally married in South Africa creates what is known as a “reciprocal duty of support”. This means that each spouse has a duty to provide for the other when it comes to accommodation, clothing, food, healthcare and other necessities.

The no-marriage option

If marriage is not part of your plans, you need to understand fully the long-term implications of living together, more formally known as cohabitation. Sue Torr, a lawyer and managing director of the financial planning firm Crue Invest in Cape Town, says many couples refer to themselves as “common-law spouses”, but this is misleading. “The fact is that no legal status is conferred on couples who choose to live together without getting married,” she says.

One important consequence of this is that unmarried couples have no duty of spousal support, so a partner who becomes unemployed, disabled, ill, or unable to generate an income for any reason, is in a precarious position. In the absence of the most fundamental duty/right that marriage bestows on couples, it is vital to know where you stand in relation to the following critical financial matters:

SHARED FINANCES

Healthcare

The Medical Schemes Act recognises the person you live with as a dependant and you are permitted to add them to your medical aid and gap cover policies as an adult dependant. Similarly, regardless of your marital status, your minor children (from the existing relationship or a previous one) can be added as child dependants on your policies.

Retirement funds

It is important to understand your rights fully in this highly regulated area.

• Beneficiaries. Like any married couple, you and your partner are entitled to nominate each other as beneficiaries of your respective retirement funds, but don’t expect your nominations to be binding on the funds’ trustees. The Pension Fund Act requires trustees to take into account everyone who is financially dependent in any way on the deceased member and distribute the benefits accordingly. Financial dependants can include minor children, a child from a previous relationship, elderly parents … even a sibling who has received support from the deceased before. Dependants always take precedence over non-dependent beneficiaries.

• Claims on pension fund interest on divorce. In respect of pension, provident and preservation funds, the “pension interest” refers to the total benefit the member would have been entitled to if he or she had resigned their membership on the date of the divorce. In respect of retirement annuities, the pension interest is the total amount of the member’s contributions up to the date of divorce plus simple interest at the prescribed rate. The right to claim a share of a member spouse’s pension interest when a relationship comes to an end is strictly limited to couples who are legally married, leaving unmarried partners high and dry. This is particularly unfair if the non-member partner has been a stay-at-home parent, while the working partner has been in a position to invest in his/her employer’s retirement fund.

Tax

From a tax perspective, cohabiting couples enjoy the same status as married couples. In terms of the Income Tax Act, a spouse includes a same-sex or heterosexual union which the South African Revenue Service (SARS) is satisfied is intended to be permanent. In the absence of any proof to the contrary, couples living together in a long-term partnership are deemed to be in a union without community of property. Consequently, the following important tax breaks apply:

• Donations tax: The broader definition of “spouse” in terms of the Income Tax Act means that donations between cohabitants are not subject to donations tax.

• Transfer duty: Anyone who inherits immoveable property is exempt from paying transfer duty on that property, and this includes cohabiting couples. In other words, if your long-term partner bequeaths property to you, you will not need to pay transfer duty and the conveyancing fees will be paid from the deceased estate.

• Estate duty: The estate duty abatement of R3.5 million applies to cohabiting couples who fall within the definition of “spouse” in terms of the Estate Duty Act. This includes people in customary unions and same-gender or heterosexual unions that SARS recognises as permanent.

Insurance

As a cohabiting couple, you are free to nominate each other as beneficiaries on your respective life policies. If you have been nominated on your partner’s policy and he or she dies, the proceeds of the policy will be paid directly to you. If you fall within the definition of “spouse” for tax purposes, the proceeds of the policy will not be regarded as property in the deceased estate and will not be subject to estate duty.

Child support

When it comes to providing maintenance for children, our law does not take into consideration the marital status of the child’s parents. All parents – whether married or not – are responsible in terms of the Children’s Act for the maintenance of their children.

Maintenance

Bear in mind that a cohabiting partner has no legal claim for maintenance from the other partner, should the relationship end. While married couples can rely on the provisions of the Divorce Act when claiming maintenance following a divorce, no such remedy is available to life partners who decide to part ways. If you are a stay-at-home parent in a cohabiting relationship, this could leave you in a financially vulnerable position should your relationship come to an end.

Property

The ownership of property can be particularly tricky in unmarried partnerships, since everything that is acquired belongs to the partner who acquired it. If you split up and your home is registered in your partner’s name, he or she has the right to evict you from the property. It is not uncommon for partners with no legal claim on a property to contribute to bond payments and the upkeep for years, and then struggle to prove it when the relationship breaks up.

Inheritance

Something that all cohabiting couples need to take into account is that they enjoy no right of inheritance should their life partner die intestate (without a will). At the very least, ensure that you and your partner get professional help to draft and sign a cohabitation agreement addressing the risks that come with cohabitation. But above all, eliminate intestate succession by having valid wills.

LESSONS FROM THE FRONT LINE

Even financial advisers can be unprepared for life’s financial setbacks. Lutz was a pharmacist before her exposure to women’s financial struggles in the healthcare sector prompted her to retrain as a financial planner and start Women’s Wealth. A few years later, after 11 years of marriage, her 48-year-old husband died suddenly of an aneurism while they were on holiday.

“Even though I was so involved with women and their finances, there was so much that was not in place for me at that moment. It made the shock so much worse. I had no idea where to find important documents such as our marriage certificate, title deeds for our home, our birth certificates...

“It’s important to have your own bank account and savings, because bank accounts are frozen when someone dies – even joint accounts. Even if he had been incapacitated, I couldn’t have accessed his accounts because I didn’t have the passwords.

“Fortunately, he had a life policy, which paid out within a couple of weeks. That meant I didn’t have to wait for the estate to be wound up to get access to money. And luckily, his accountant had a copy of his will.

“It could have been even worse, but it made me so much more conscious of the need for independence in financial matters. For a start, every woman should have a file containing the antenuptial contract (if applicable) and her partner’s legal documents, bank details, policy documents, will (certified copy), credit card details, ID (certified copy) and contact details for any accountant, lawyer and/or financial adviser she doesn’t know personally.”

Oprah Winfrey said: “A man is not a financial plan.” In those few words, she expressed what we all know: that women are too ready to delegate financial management to their partners. In her experience, says Lutz, women who don’t work, or work for relatively little money, often feel they have no right to a say in financial matters.

The truth is that spending and saving needs to reconcile the priorities of both parties. “Establish an open dialogue from the start, and acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses,” says Lutz. “It can be daunting to break through the privacy barrier, but it gets easier.”

Make sure you are included in some – if not all – meetings with financial planners, accountants and tax consultants. A financial planner once told me that it was not uncommon to have a male client for decades, through thick and thin, without meeting the spouse or partner. That meeting would take place at the worst possible time, when the relationship had ended in divorce or death.

“A genuinely caring partner might not want to burden you with money matters, but don’t allow yourself to opt out,” says Lutz. “Insist on knowing the incomings and outgoings on which your household depends.

“They are your finances, like it or not, and there is every chance that you will have to get involved one day.”

This article first appeared in the 3rd-quarter 2021 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

PERSONAL FINANCE

Related Topics:

FinanceMarriage

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