Why Couples Should Have a Financial Agenda Before Cohabitating

Make sure you have considered the financial, emotional and legal implications of "officially" moving in together before taking the plunge.

Key Takeaways:

  • The latest U.S. census data show there are now more nontraditional households in America than at any other time in our nation’s history.

  • Financial planning issues have never been more complicated for soon-to-be-joined couples—especially when one or both members of the couple are affluent.

  • Depending on how you and your spouse feel about your financial position, age and health, chances are estate plans, financial plans and other legal documents need updating.

Couples that are planning to move in together—whether young adults or seniors--should have a serious discussion with each other, as well as with their adult children, parents and financial advisors, who may be affected by their decision to cohabitate. They should also make sure they’re in sync with each other when it comes to personal, career, financial and family goals. Couples should also be very open about each other’s health status and any prior financial commitments they may have.

Here are eight key questions that soon-to-be-official couples should discuss before taking the next big step in their relationship:

1. What are each partner’s assets, liabilities and income? Make sure your partner can tell you ALL of the assets and debts they have in their name. They should be able to include everything if needed, along with a copy of the last two years’ income tax returns. Be honest about how much each other earns and about other sources of income (e.g., rental from a property or income from a trust fund).

Discuss debts in detail (how does each partner plan to pay them off?) and credit ratings. Bring up prior financial problems such as an inability to handle debt or a bankruptcy.

2. Does your partner want or need a cohabitation agreement? This may be a delicate topic, but you should address it head-on, especially if one partner has greater assets than the other.

3. How might wills, trusts and/or health care directives and powers of attorney be handled? Will each partner name the other as the primary beneficiary of their assets, life insurance policies and retirement plans? If there are children from a prior marriage, who will be the primary beneficiary? Who should be the one to take care of matters should something happen to either of them? If one partner has a larger estate, marriage may provide some estate-tax savings. Talk it out until you agree on what’s fair.

4. Does your partner have your same view about savings and retirement? Discuss attitudes regarding savings for the short term and the long term. Are they savers or spenders? If still working, when are you each planning to retire? What resources does your partner have for retirement, and how do they want to live those years?

5. How does your partner manage finances? Will he or she keep separate bank and investment accounts? Will you have only joint accounts, or have something in between?

If you use joint bank accounts or hold title to assets in each other’s names, then that can be used as evidence during a breakup that you had an “agreement” to divide all of your respective assets evenly. If your partner is certain that they want joint ownership of some assets, be sure an attorney drafts provisions in a written agreement specifying who owns what and what happens in the event of a breakup. The agreement should also provide guidance about handling money transfers to the other. Be sure the terms of a gift or loan are clearly stated to avoid misunderstandings later if there is a break up.

Who will pay the bills? How will expenses be divided? Will each partner do this equally or will those duties and obligations be based on income. Will one of you handle all of your financial responsibilities related to couple-hood? Will you and your partner invest together or separately?

Make sure to talk about your respective feelings toward debt. Is one you more comfortable than the other when it comes to taking on obligations? Does one of you view debt like the plague? If so, how will this be handled?

Be careful about having both of your names on a credit card. Will each of you be liable for what the other one charges. If so, your respective credit ratings can be at risk. Make sure your partner understands that if they decide to sign a joint credit card application, they should cross out the word “spouse” and substitute “co-applicant,” so you are not being presented to the world as a married couple.

6. What is your partner’s approach to financial risk? Is one of you a risk-taker and the other risk-averse? Can the two live together without driving each other crazy financially? Are you each willing and able to make changes as needed?

7. Does your partner have insurance? Find out how much and what kind of insurance each of you has. Are you both insurable? Can either of you qualify for any additional coverage through an employer?

With homeowner’s insurance, both of your will be on the policy if you co-own your residence. If only one of you is an owner, then the other needs to be named as an additional insured or must have renter’s insurance.

If each of you owns a car, the insurance company will want to issue two separate policies. That will cost you more because you won’t get a multiple car discount. If you decide to co-own each of your cars, determine the potential liability if one partner has a car accident. Find out how well you and your partner are covered if driving someone else’s car (including rental cars). Have an attorney cover the issue of ownership of the cars.

Each of you should have umbrella insurance to provide additional protection beyond the car and homeowner policies.

8. What names will each of you use on official financial and legal documents? Is either taking on the other’s last name? Be careful when one takes on the other’s name. Calling one’s partner a “husband” or “wife” or presenting oneself as a married couple can have serious consequences. Each of these actions may be used to support an argument for a division of assets and support payments if you break up.


An estimated 120 million Americans—including millions of unmarried couples that live together---do not have an up-to-date estate plan to protect themselves and their families. This makes estate planning one of the most overlooked areas of personal financial management. As there are many potential legal and financial traps with cohabitating, this may be an excellent opportunity for you and your partner to discuss your changing situation with a qualified financial advisor. The more you can keep your legal and financial house in order, the more you can enjoy the process of getting to know your partner better in a fulfilling and deeper way.

A number of organizations, including The Financial Awareness Foundation, have excellent resources about estate planning for non-traditional couples.

Robert J. Pyle, CFP®, CFA is president of Diversified Asset Management, Inc. (DAMI). DAMI is licensed as an investment adviser with the State of Colorado Division of Securities, and its investment advisory representatives are licensed by the State of Colorado. DAMI will only transact business in other states to the extent DAMI has made the requisite notice filings or obtained the necessary licensing in such state. No follow up or individualized responses to persons in other jurisdictions that involve either rendering or attempting to render personalized investment advice for compensation will be made absent compliance with applicable legal requirements, or an applicable exemption or exclusion. It does not constitute investment or tax advice. To contact Robert, call 303-440-2906 or e-mail info@diversifiedassetmanagement.com.


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