I now pronounce you debtor & debtor

Talk about money before the wedding bells ring

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Although love is said to be the most important part of a successful marriage, money is often a leading cause of divorce.

"The time to talk about money is not after you walk down the aisle and say, 'I do,' " said Linda Descano, president and CEO of Women & Co. in New York. "It should become part of the conversation as soon as you realize you are in a serious relationship.

"When you talk about money, it can be an emotionally charged subject," she said. "The emotions are not about money, but what it represents -- security, independence and quality of life."

Civil court records show marriage licenses and divorce decrees hit a peak in Allegheny County in 2005 and then declined until 2009. By 2010, both marriages and divorces here were back on the rise.

"Because of the economic recovery under way since the beginning of 2009, the rising marriage licenses and divorce filings could well be related because people are getting stronger financially," said P.J. DiNuzzo, president of DiNuzzo Investment Advisors in Beaver County.

Pittsburgh family law attorney Karen Ackerman said she was often surprised by the number of people who have no idea how much debt their partners have.

"There are people who don't even know how much their spouse makes because their checks are not deposited into a joint account," said Ms. Ackerman, a sole practitioner located Downtown.

"I'm surprised there are so many who don't know what the household income is. They don't know how much income is available to their families or where it's going."

While researching his book, "Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide For Engaged and Newly Married Couples," Matt Bell interviewed several divorce attorneys who told him that when marriages are on the rocks, couples are usually living separate financial lives.

"One person will take the couple to the edge of a financial cliff by racking up a lot of debt," he said. "By the time the other finds out, there's a lot of debt, and all respect and trust is lost as well."

Recently married himself, financial adviser Anthony Criscuolo of Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is convinced that full financial disclosure is the most important policy future married couples can have toward each other.

"The biggest mistake newlyweds can make is avoiding the money conversation completely," he said. "Money issues will come up ... so by avoiding the money conversation, your marriage is essentially starting off against the odds."

Couples should tell each other before the wedding about all debt obligations rather than waiting until the bills start coming in.

Each person should make a list of all student loans, car loans, credit card debt and even personal loans that he or she has received from family and friends, said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, an online consumer resource for comparing card rates.

"Get copies of credit reports to verify all open accounts," Mr. Hardekopf said. "One or both of you may enter the partnership with debt, but debt payments drain away money you could be saving to help reach financial goals.

"If either partner has problems with credit, your rental or mortgage application may be denied, or you may have to pay more money on loans with higher rates."

Combining finances is no simple matter when people marry.

They may be just starting out in their careers and making a low income, or it may be a second marriage and one partner may owe child support and alimony to a former spouse.

Will you have one bank account for all income and expenses, or will you start with three accounts -- his, hers and ours? Financial planners say a joint account is easier to manage and will prevent some disagreements over dividing bills, but decisions should be shared.

"Money affects every decision you make as a couple," said Scott Palmer, co-author of "First Comes Love Then Comes Money: A Couple's Guide to Financial Communication," which he wrote with his wife, Bethany.

"Money will affect the grade of gasoline you put in your cars, even the brand of cereal you eat. There's a financial component in every decision."

Laura Rowley, a Yahoo! Finance columnist, said that when couples are not in sync with their money, they are not in sync with their life vision. It becomes a sore spot because they can't agree on how to use money as a tool to help them reach shared goals.

"It's a universal challenge, something every family has to deal with. Whether you have a little or a lot of money, you still have to pay the bills," said Cathi Brese Doebler, author of "Ditch the Jones, Discover Your Family: How to Thrive on Less Than Two Incomes."

"Some families have additional challenges like health or religion, but everyone deals with money, which is why it's important to work together rather than tear each other apart over finances."

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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