By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
I have dated my fiancée for just over three years. Within those three years, I have been severed from a job and spent two years unemployed looking for a new job. I have a new job, making roughly 75% of what I previously made, but it is a more than livable salary. My fiancée makes a modest salary in comparison to my own.
Financially, I had spent a lot of years going without in order to pay for my son’s college education and to stockpile savings in order to retire early. According to my financial planner, I am well ahead of my goal to retire at 58 (I’m 51 currently) with an IRA of around $2 million, plus savings and other liquid assets.
Currently, my fiancée is trying to get herself out of debt. She drives my old car and shares no utility bills or mortgage payments, but she does buy groceries, as the household is made up of her, her children and me. By supporting her family, I have very little I can do for my own son.
It has always been tradition in my family to leave an inheritance. I had planned on leaving my only son a rather large inheritance so that he may better himself and his family. My fiancée has children, and my concern is that if I am married (I live in Texas), the savings I have would go to her and subsequently her children, bypassing my son.
Since I am 10 years older than my fiancée, I suspect she may outlive me. How do I protect my assets so that they can be split as part of my wishes?
Nervous Fiancé and Father
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Dear F & F,
Marriage is a commitment to spend the rest of your lives together and, yes, it’s a legal contract. Some argue that it’s effectively a business contract. It’s easy to enter into but, like the Hotel California, you can check out but never really leave.
I say that because you need to weigh up the financial and legal commitment to your fiancée and her family with the commitment to supporting her in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer and, of course, until death do you part.
To your questions: Texas is a community-property state, so what you bring into the marriage, you also take out of the marriage. Assets accrued during the marriage, with the exception of inheritance, are deemed marital or community property.
You have several options, including setting up a living trust to allow you to transfer your wealth to your son during your lifetime, and thereby avoiding going through probate, which can be an unpredictable, cumbersome and public process.
You have two choices of trust: revocable or irrevocable. The first can be changed. You could retitle financial accounts in your son’s name. The latter cannot be changed, and also serves to save on estate taxes. It’s typically used to leave assets to children and grandchildren.
Other routes: a prenuptial agreement, a will (obviously) and naming your son as your beneficiary on your life-insurance policy. With the help of an estate planner, you can devise ways to ensure your son is taken care of after you’re gone, and your future wife is not left out.
In the meantime, ensure you keep separate property separate. If you deposit an inheritance in a joint bank account, for instance, it becomes marital property. If your fiancée contributes to the renovation of a home in your name, it again becomes community property.
Speak to your fiancée about your concerns and goals. It’s important to be transparent and ensure that you and she are on the same page, and share the same financial expectations. You may also want to wait until your wife pays her debts before marrying.
You are three years into this relationship, and your fiancée’s kids may have come to rely on you emotionally as well as financially, perhaps in ways that you least expect or even notice. Tread gently. It may be that these children become as important to you as if they were your own.
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