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I just found my husband's secret will, and it left me reeling

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 2/21/2020 Quentin Fottrell

Dear Moneyist:

My spouse hides his money, and all of his investments are hidden.

I have lived in Boston since 2006. I moved from New York and gave up my job of 16 years because we got married and I relocated, leaving my two adult children, who were 21 and 24 at that time. I divorced my first husband in 1998 and met my spouse sometime in 2000. My husband, who is 70, will be retired four years in October. He retired from the U.S. Army Reserve, where he spent 24 years.

I see his mail from time to time, but he keeps everything locked up in a file cabinet. He gets four incomes per month, and everything goes directly to his accounts. He lives off his Social Security each month. I work full time and make $50,000 a year. My husband gives me $150 each month. Sometimes he forgets. When I ask for it, he gets angry or doesn’t give it to me.

He has never been married before and has three daughters in their 40s and 50s. He has no connection to them at all, but I do think they know where we live. He bought a three-bedroom home before we married. I have not contributed to this mortgage, and my name is not on the deed. I pay for water, heat, phone, food and other things. He has an income of over $8,000 a month. He has saved and invested in CDs, and has a 457 Smart Plan, among other investments. I have my own 457, and I put $400 into it every month.

Anytime I ask for more money, he gets very angry at me. He even lies and tells me he has no money on him, just credit cards. Then I check when he goes to sleep and he has plenty of money in his wallet! I don’t take it, but it saddens me that he treats me this way.

The Moneyist: My husband’s former mistress is ruining our life

He always uses his credit card or bank card to buy things. I barely see him take money out of his wallet, and he never leaves his wallet on the table. He also has a post-office box, which he said his sister gave to him. All important papers are out of my sight, but there are a bunch here in the house, kept in his closet in plastic bags tied in a knot. I have never seen anything like this.

He has diabetes and a chronic back issue. He sits all day watching TV, while I do all the cooking and cleaning. I am 60 years old and tired of working alone. I know he is sick, but he doesn’t care how I feel. I can’t get $5 if I ask for it. He tells me I have my own job and that I am a beneficiary on two of his investment accounts. I don’t want to get thrown out into the streets if something happens to him.

I did recently find a will he had hidden in the house, and it left me reeling: His favorite sister will inherit his estate. Is that will still valid, given that we married in 2005? I spoke to him about the will and tried to air my concerns. He got mad at me (again) and said he was going to change it. He never did. But I was able to make a copy of it. 

I love him, but I know this is totally not right. How can I protect myself?

Saddened by all the Secrets

Dear Saddened:

You can’t protect yourself by living a life ruled by another human being.

Thank you for sharing your story. I found it difficult to read, and I have read many heartbreaking (and inspiring) stories, in come cases by the same letter writer. I’ve even had a couple who were battling over secret wills. Your husband is not in touch with his children. We don’t know whether that is by choice. He keeps his financial life hidden away in plastic bags and a post-office box. He is quick to anger, and he watches TV while you serve him food and clean his home.

Massachusetts is a separate property state. Anything your husband owned prior to this marriage, which includes the house you live in and separate bank and savings accounts, belongs to him. Separate property also includes inheritance you or your husband may receive during your marriage. If you fell down a manhole tomorrow and broke your leg, and you were awarded $100,000 in a lawsuit, that too would belong to you and you alone.

His last will and testament is valid, assuming all the legal requirements were adhered to at the time. However, living in a community property state does not mean that any money earned by you and your husband during your marriage is split 50/50 in the event that you divorce. In a case such as this, a judge would take into consideration your age; the length of your marriage; your incomes, job prospects and financial needs; and, last but not least, behavior during the marriage itself.

He has maintained complete control — not only over his finances, but over his marriage, his home and what he deems appropriate to disclose to his wife of 15 years. Love means different things to different people. We are not all built the same. So I have some questions for you before I move onto your options, primarily because our financial decisions are often based on our own experiences, character and emotions. Whether we like to admit it or not, these things are inextricably linked.

What does love mean to you? Is it a home where you feel safe and comforted and heard and respected and appreciated? Or is it a house with four walls and a roof, central heating, food on the table, a refrigerator and television, and running water? Do you feel loved? Does your husband’s home feel like your home? Does your relationship feel like a balance of give and take, compromise and mutual support? Do you laugh together? Does he share his time and his affection with you?

I am always cautious of the blanket statement, “I love him, but...” Sometimes, we need to question our definition of love, independent of our financial and even our emotional needs. Love is not conditional, and the status quo in your marriage should not depend on your not asking questions about money, or on anything that might threaten or rattle the way you both choose to live your lives. That includes your submission to his wishes and your husband’s finely oiled marriage machine.

Because many situations we find ourselves in — whether it’s debt, a job we don’t like, a car or house or lifestyle we can’t afford, or an unhappy marriage — are a choice. You are not trapped by your husband’s financial secrecy, controlling behavior or unwillingness to participate in household chores, or even the ever-present possibility that he may fly into a rage. You are here by choice. That brings me to the good news: This is your life and you do have choices. In fact, you have lots of them.

I’m not telling you to leave him and I’m not telling you not to leave him. I do believe that you wrote to me and shared your story for a reason. I may be wrong, but the current state of play does not appear to be making you happy and I sense an overwhelming fear of financial insecurity and the unknown. Based on what you told me about his three daughters, it's probably a fair guess to say that this is not the first time someone close to him has decided it was time to break ties.

If he wanted a housekeeper instead of a wife, he could still hire a housekeeper to cook and clean and shop for his groceries. He is one of the few Americans who could probably afford a live-in housekeeper, if he really wanted one: The annual salary of a live-in housekeeper starts at around $45,000 per year, according to some estimates. That way, he can cancel his post-office box and have all of his investment account mail delivered to his home.

Given that you have been married for more than 10 years, you are entitled to half of your husband’s Social Security benefits if you divorce, unless you remarry, of course. Money he added to his retirement accounts during your marriage are also likely to be considered marital/community property. But you have bigger questions facing you: What price freedom? What price happiness? What price financial security? That is only something you can decide.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used). 

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