The story that always breaks my heart is when someone who has been married for many years (usually her entire adult life) is faced with divorce and she has absolutely no clue about the couple's financial picture. This is called being the "Out-Spouse," and it's far more often the woman in a hetero couple.
The "In-Spouse" has all or most of the knowledge -- and therefore, power -- of the assets and debts they have accrued as well as how much money comes in and goes out each month. In divorce, as in marriage, the "Outtie" will be much more vulnerable.
If she's on good terms with her soon-to-be-ex, she may be able to trust that he'll be honest with her about their monetary state of affairs. He might even educate her on the numbers and want to split everything equitably, but in my thirteen years of working with divorcing women, I haven't seen this happen much.
This isn't to say that every man who wants to take care of the family purse strings has bad motives or is pulling some kind of power play, but those men who deny their wives access to important information probably haven't evolved much beyond a 1950s mindset of the roles spouses play in marriage.
Other factors that make this situation more difficult is if the "in-spouse" owns his own business, works in the world of finance, is quite business savvy and is a narcissist. These people can be controlling and may have anger issues to boot, which makes it that much more difficult for the "outtie" to get involved.
If you get responses to your inquiries such as, "Don't you trust me?" Or, "If you trusted me, you wouldn't ask me questions like that," you know you are dealing with someone who won't give up their control easily.
An obedient spouse would immediately become filled with shame and shut her curiosity down. She might even think, "I should be more trusting," but all the while, her instincts are screaming at her to beware.
And if her intuition was sounding alarms when they were married, one thing she can count on is that things will not be different in a divorce situation. Things may even be worse.
A woman I worked with years ago named Connie was 69 years old had just been "deserted," as she called it, by her husband of 42 years. The man she loved and trusted with the family riches (including an inheritance she'd received from her parents) had skipped town, leaving her with not only a pile of bills, but also a huge mortgage! Unbeknownst to her, after their house had been paid off years earlier, he leveraged it to the hilt to fuel his gambling addiction and his new girlfriend. She was devastated to find out that he'd been a liar, cheat, addict and a thief. He'd led a double life for years and she never suspected a thing.
Had Connie opened the mail once in while or looked in the filing cabinet in his office, she would have seen what he was up to. It was all right there. But she didn't because she trusted him and saw no reason to.
Talk about rude awakenings!
And then there's Elizabeth. Eleven years ago, when she and her husband divorced, she was advised to file bankruptcy. After a 14-year relationship with a high profile celebrity, Elizabeth was left with two small children, minimal support and millions of dollars of debt that consisted of business deals gone bad, investments she knew nothing about, and several lawsuits that didn't involve her.
The unspoken "rule" in her marriage was that she would have no say in the finances. So Elizabeth remained quiet until things got ugly. Even when she learned about the trouble they were in, she vowed to stay married and get out of the mess as a team. One of the conditions was that she wanted to have a say in planning their future. He refused and she felt she had no choice but to leave.
"It was devastating," Elizabeth explained. "I was madly in love with my ex-husband, and I believed in him 100 percent. What I didn't realize was that believing in someone is very different than depending on him."
While it took almost a decade to clean up the mess, Elizabeth didn't blame him. "I took full responsibility for landing where I did. I helped create the debt by not participating in the money. Working through that was not easy but it's been one of the greatest lessons in my life."
In early 2012, Elizabeth stumbled on WIFE.org (Women's Institute for Financial Education). When she first saw their tagline, "A Man is Not a Financial Plan," she knew she was in the right place. She reached out to co-founders, Candace Bahr and Ginita Wall, who took her in and helped her become fully empowered financially.
"I'm remarried now, and my husband and I share all financial responsibility. In fact, I take on more than he does because I was so traumatized." Elizabeth said that she'd like to prevent what happened to her from happening to other women.
According to Bahr, "Elizabeth was a lot like many women we've seen over the years with disastrous stories. For women, the result of not being involved in the family finances -- even when there's no divorce -- can have catastrophic repercussions on the future of the entire family.
But, just as Elizabeth made it a point in her second marriage to be more knowledgeable, the good news is that this issue can be solved by learning about your economic circumstances.
In a perfect world, you won't have to sneak around in order to be informed, but if you ask your spouse to help you understand the financial picture (which, by the way is advisable in the event that tragedy strikes and he can no longer take care of the family) and he refuses to, you can request your own copy of tax returns from the IRS and/or credit reports. These documents will include a great deal of information about assets and debts held by the community and it's a good way to get a foundation of information.
It was as a result of seeing countless women be truly unprepared to manage money on their own that Wall and Bahr founded WIFE.org. They've since devoted 25 years to empowering women financially so they don't have to live with fear of the unknown.
"We always say, 'It's more than money -- it's your life,' because it truly is."
Get informed. Visit their website at www.WIFE.org. They have many wonderful resources and articles there.