How do I talk to my new partner about financial obligations from my previous marriage?

How do I talk to my new partner about financial obligations from my previous marriage?

Beth takes on a tricky new money question—and offers expert advice on how to resolve it and how to talk it over in constructive ways.


The situation

I’m divorced, have two kids, and am about to propose to the person I’ve been dating. How do I talk to my new partner about my existing financial obligations—some of which come from my previous marriage? We’ve had general conversations about money, but I’ve never gone into detail.

—Brent, Milwaukee

The solution

Let me offer my congratulations—and some unromantic-sounding advice: You need to have a money powwow with your new partner, pronto. Talking money with a spouse-to-be is always tricky, but this is a more complicated conversation than it would be if the two of you were getting married for the first time. Though the divorce rate for second marriages is—as you’re probably aware—higher than it is for those who haven’t walked down the aisle before, plenty of people end up being quite happy. That’s because they figure out how to deal head-on with the emotional and financial challenges of remarriage.

Everyone comes from his or her own “money culture.” “When you are entering a marriage, you bring a family history with you around money. You bring assets, but you also bring a pattern around using money,” observes Lori Sackler, a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley and the author, with Toddi Gutner, of The M Word: The Money Talk Every Family Needs to Have About Wealth and Their Financial Future, which devotes a whole chapter to the financial challenges of remarriage. Tensions can arise if your partner’s financial values are very different from yours—or from those of your kids or your ex. If you identify those differences and resolve them now, they won’t surprise you later on.

Before I go further, let me say that everyone’s circumstances are different. You’ll need to take into account your personal financial situation, the legal requirements of your divorce, and the family dynamics and personalities involved. That said, here’s a step-by-step guide for what to say and do when you’re getting serious with a new partner after a divorce.

1. Honestly survey your financial landscape. “Divorce is financially and emotionally devastating,” said Sackler. “It involves separating relationships but also assets.” You may be scrambling to pay rent on a new apartment or the mortgage on the family home on your own. You may be paying child support, alimony, or both. If you’re the primary custodian of your children, you could be shouldering the lion’s share of child-related expenses. Add in the cost of the divorce itself—including bills for lawyers—and the financial impact of parting ways with your ex can be huge.

2. Lay all your (credit) cards on the table. As hard it may sound, you have to be absolutely up front at the outset. If you wait until later, your new partner could wind up feeling resentful. “It’s important to have open disclosure, and to have these conversations early on,” said Sackler. “Don’t wait until a week before the wedding, or even until you’re engaged.” Choose a low-key moment, and then open the conversation with something like, “Now that we are talking about getting married, there are some things you should know about my finances.” Topics to cover include alimony, child support, bills you and your ex may still be jointly responsible for, and your retirement income, if your divorce decree sets a portion of it aside for your ex. Discuss how much you need to be saving for your kids’ college expenses, too. And if you have significant debts, disclose those. Then invite your partner to share his or her finances. You may not be the only one with some financial surprises.

3. Give your partner space to process. Try not to get defensive if your partner is taken aback or even gets upset about your debts and obligations. He or she has probably been picturing your life together without those financial strains, and is mentally revising that outlook in real time. (On the other hand, your partner needs to accept—especially if you’re a noncustodial parent—that you take the continued financial support of your child seriously.) Set a time to circle back around to this discussion in a week or two, after your partner has had time to let everything sink in.

4. Hatch a plan. Once your partner has had a chance to absorb your situation, it’s time to plan your future together. Will you join your assets and accounts, or keep them separate? Which responsibilities are your individual concern, and which do you share? It may make sense for one or both of you to maintain at least one separate credit card or bank account for financial obligations from previous marriages. If there are children—particularly young ones—who will be financially responsible for them, and how will those arrangements work?

5. Bring in a third party. Sorting through the tangle of financial and emotional issues can be daunting. Often, it helps to have a neutral figure—a lawyer, a financial advisor, a therapist, or maybe a combination—to help with the process.

6. Keep the conversation going. This discussion isn’t a one-off event. Your marriage can thrive only if you keep the lines of communication open, especially when challenges arise—and they most definitely will. Some people find it helpful to schedule a monthly financial check-in. You can even turn it into a date night, with a nice bottle of wine and a favorite Netflix series teed up for when you’re done with money talk.

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