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Family lawyers: separate bank account trend is trouble

The comedian Rodney Dangerfield was ahead of his time when it came to marital independence. “We sleep in separate rooms, we have dinner apart, we take separate vacations—we’re doing everything we can to keep our marriage together,” he liked to quip.

Notably, Dangerfield did not say that he and his wife kept separate bank accounts. But more and more couples now believe that these too are important to a healthy marriage, according to multiple studies. (Rodney might say the idea is finally getting some respect.) And if the marriage should for some reason not work, some couples may think that separate bank accounts will make it easier for them to go their separate ways.

Some family law attorneys say that they’ve also noticed a trend of more couples coming to them with separate bank accounts. But if those couples think that separate accounts will make the splitting any simpler, the attorneys say that’s frankly not the case. From a legal standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether bank accounts are held jointly or separately—assets acquired during the marriage are presumptively marital assets that would need to be distributed.

In fact, separate accounts can sometimes cause additional headaches, attorneys cautioned.

“I think people are doing it because they think it’s easier and cleaner if things don’t work out. But the reality is that you still have to account for it,” said Penelope Hefner, a family law and divorce attorney with Sodoma Law in Charlotte.

“I think people are led to believe that separate accounts are going to be helpful down the road, but that’s not necessarily so. If the wife has been squirreling away money over the years, and she’s got tens of thousands of dollars in a separate account, that’s not just her money. It goes into the marital pot and it’s subject to division anyway.”

Like most modern trends, this one often gets laid at the feet of millennials. A study published by Bank of America earlier this year found that 28 percent of millennial couples say they keep their finances separate, a much higher figure than for older generations. An earlier study by TD Bank produced similar figures.

But the trend toward separate bank accounts may be more closely correlated with modern preferences than with generational differences. Attorneys say that couples who get married later in life are among the ones most likely to keep separate bank accounts, probably because they’ve grown accustomed to their financial independence and hesitate to give it up. (Statistically speaking, millennials are also getting married later in life, after they’ve become more financially established.)

Lisa Angel, a family law attorney with the Rosen Law Firm in Raleigh, said she has also seen more cases in the last five years or so where the couples have kept their finances separate throughout the marriage. She’s also seen also seen couples turn to separate accounts as a solution when they have conflicts over money.

“Sometimes it doesn’t make the case easier, though, because the other spouse has not had financial transparency throughout the marriage, so we have to spend time making sure we understand what was going on in both spouses’ financial history,” Angel said. “Whereas if they’ve kept a joint account and they’ve always been transparent, we end up having to do less of that forensic work.”

Studies have also found that couples who keep separate bank accounts are more likely to end up getting divorced than those with joint accounts—although in this case correlation does not imply causation, since it’s impossible to disentangle cause from effect.

Still, Hefner said that in her opinion, couples who decide to keep separate bank accounts may be increasing the risks of problems down the road. She said that it’s not uncommon for clients to come to her and end up shocked to learn that their spouse has tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt that they didn’t know about, for reasons ranging from the innocent to the devious. She also said that money conflicts are the most common cause of marital problems that she sees.

“Everyone thinks it’s cheating and it’s juicy—and we do see that sometimes—but no, it’s the money,” Hefner said. “I have people feeling like they need to get out of the marriage because the other spouse is going to spend them into the ground. Over and over again, we spend a lot of time thinking about money.”

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan


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