Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Second Marriages and Asymmetrical Relationships

Second marriages can be tricky, when there is an asymmetry in power.  But then again, most relationships suffer from this problem.

A reader writes asking about what he should do in his situation.  Both he and his girlfriend have over $1M in assets, each, and she owns a $700,000 house.  If he moves in, should he pay for half the house?   I am sure most readers weep for them, having a combined two million bucks and all.  Life is hard!

But as I noted before, I am not an advice columnist.  My only take is that it might be better, if they decide to marry, to buy a house together that is theirs and not just hers.  Because let's face it, even if you paid for the whole house, it will always be "her house" that you moved into.  But that's just how I feel about it.  Maybe others are less bothered by the concept.

This also illustrates how it is harder, as you get older, to find a mate. When Mark and I met, we had nothing.  I had a battered old Chevette and a loan from the Patent Office Credit Union.  Mark had a slightly dinged Golf GTI and a slightly dinged credit rating.  Together we started out with nothing and worked out way up.  What he have today is a result of those efforts and it is ours jointly.  Neither of us can claim to have done it all by themselves, without the other.

Not everyone is so lucky - or smart, perhaps.  When I lived in Syracuse, back in the 1980's, there was a short article in the city paper:

"A local hairdresser, Bruce Gaylord, was found dead in the trunk of his gold 1982 Cadillac Coupe De Ville, which was on fire at the time. Police are looking to question a certain Mr. Simon Roughtrade, who was allegedly staying with Mr. Gaylord and hasn't been seen since. One of Mr. Gaylord's neighbors, Patricia Faghag noted, that "Bruce was such a kindhearted man! He always took in troubled young men and gave them a place to stay! Such a shame what happened!"

I embellish a bit, but that was pretty much the story, word-for-word, including the comment from his neighbor.  Taking in strays is never a good idea, but sadly, this isn't limited to gay people - straight men do it as well, convinced that "Tiffany" the crack-whore stripper really loves him, and that when her ex-boyfriend gets out of jail, bad things won't happen to him.  They usually do.

But it goes beyond this.  In fact, until fairly recently, most marriages were asymmetrical in power, as women had few rights.  We are about to celebrate Juneteenth, when the slaves were emancipated.  But of course, full emancipation was years in the making - and indeed, even today, things are hardly even-steven.  But for women - of any race - equality took (and is taking) even longer.  Until fairly recent times, not only could women not own property, but were also deemed to be property.

Even in more recent times - my lifetime - the man was considered the "breadwinner" and made the majority of all of the income in the household.  The woman had little or no power, in many relationships.  All of that is changing.  Slowly.

It is hard when two people come together and there is an asymmetry in power.  And it is not always along traditional lines.  A former neighbor of mine had a landscaping business.  His wife was a surgeon.  Slight difference in income levels.  And it is harder for men in such a situation, as they are expected to be the "breadwinner" even today, and of course their "friends" will rib them about being a "kept man" or some such nonsense.   With friends like that...

So that is one reason Mark and I put everything into joint tenancy early on.  When we bought our first house together in 1987, the closing attorney was aghast. "Don't you want tenants-in-common?  If you die, he gets the whole house, including your half!"   But of course, there is no such thing as "half a house" and sadly, during the HIV epidemic, many people died and the surviving partner was booted out of their home, when greedy relatives swooped down to claim all the possessions - often using Biblical scripture to justify their actions, at least morally.  But legally, if one partner had the house in his name only, and didn't even bother to prepare a will, the property goes to the greedy relatives (who threw the deceased partner out of the house when he was 18 and declared himself gay).

Again, this is a lot easier to combine your assets when you start out with nothing and build your way up.   And that is why I say that people who stay single for a long period time are probably destined to remain single.  Once you accumulate wealth, buy a house, settle down, it is a lot harder to "share" with a potential partner, lest you lose half your hard work if it doesn't play out. And like I said above, moving in to someone else's house is never going to be completely comfortable.

But maybe that is one reason why, traditionally, most people get married fairly young - when they are just starting out - "A kiss for luck and we're on our way!" as Karen Carpenter sang.

A kiss for luck and we're on our way! - kind of creepy she sang this with her brother.....

But what about second marriages?   When you get older, your spouse dies and you remarry.  Or, heaven forbid, something doesn't work out and you get divorced.  Or worse yet, you just get divorced on a whim, which seems to be the trend, or was the trend, until recently.  You meet someone new, but by then you both have houses, significant assets, and children.  How do you set things up financially?

I am not an advice columnist - just pointing out how difficult these arrangements are.  Even more difficult is the fact that pensions and Social Security may be affected by whether and when you get married.  And some folks never think about this, or if they do, write it off.

For example, Tim and Jennifer are both widows. Jennifer has a nice "widow's pension" as her husband was highly-paid executive.  Not only that, she gets a survivor's benefit from her husband's Social Security.  She has no Social Security benefits of her own, as she never worked the necessary 40 quarters to qualify.  She and Tim decide to marry, but that means she loses some of her widow's pension and her Social Security survivor's benefits, as she had not yet turned 60.  They would be better off, financially, if they remained unmarried.  But Jennifer, being religious, refuses to go along with this, as it is "against God's will" - even though they already had premarital sex.

They also have unequal assets coming into the marriage.  She owns a home, with a mortgage, and has some assets.  But Tim has far more assets, a bigger Social Security check, and a fat pension as well.  How do they deal with the inequality?  Badly, as it turns out.

They did decide that Jennifer would sell her house and they would buy a new one together.  Tim wasn't happy that Jennifer's adult children all had keys to her house and would stop by, day and night, to hang out and raid the refrigerator.  Tim thought buying a different house that was "theirs" would put a stop to that.  It didn't.

But also, they worried if one predeceased the other, the division of assets would be unequal.  So Tim signed a screwy will that gave Jennifer all of his assets if he died, but if Jennifer died, her will stipulated that Tim received only half of her assets including half the house.  They really didn't think this through very well.  Tim would have to sell the house and find a new place to live.

It gets complicated, second marriages.  Like I said, I know one couple who decided to keep everything separate - they split the utilities and mortgage payments, and each pays for their own cars.  You see letters to The Moneyist all the time about this - couples who lead separate financial lives. They go out to dinner with friends, and husband orders the Lobster, while impoverished wife orders just soup. She is chagrined when the bill comes and husband suggests splitting it, 50-50.  It really makes no sense.

Worse yet, I have met couples where one spouse stays home, unable to afford an expensive activity the other spouse wants to engage in.  "You go on that cruise by yourself, hon, I can't afford it!"  Is that even a marriage, or just a shitty roommate arrangement?

Complicating things is the desire to leave money to the children-from-a-previous-marriage in the will, or worse yet, inter vivos transfers.  Dad wants to be a big-shot for his daughters, paying for their cell phone bills when they are well into their 40's. Meanwhile, his new wife is eating canned beans, when he is out playing golf with his buddies. It creates a weird vibe, in my opinion.  But I guess people sign up for these deals and are happy with them - even though they bitch about it all the time.  To each their own.

The prenuptial agreement, of course, was designed specifically for such asymmetrical marriages.  And in some cases, I guess they make sense.  On the other hand, it is a way of saying, "I love you and would be willing to die for you, but then again, I don't trust you and kind of love my stock portfolio more!"

It is also a way of controlling people. If you hold all the purse-strings and your spouse can't leave you without being destitute, well, you are pretty certain they will never leave you.  It is leverage against your opponent, so to speak.  You can keep them in line, and they can't divorce you without sacrificing an awful lot.  Donald Trump loves these sorts of arrangements.  But then again, I doubt he is capable of feeling love for anyone other than himself, if he even knows what love is.

The trophy-wife and the boy-toy are about the same thing, as is the mail-order bride. And in our travels and in life, we have seen examples of all of these things.  I recounted before how a friend of mine married this Vietnamese girl, who was quite sweet to him and bore him children.  She also managed to get all of her family members out of Vietnam, now that she was a US Citizen by marriage.  He confided to me that he felt a stranger in his own home, with everyone speaking Vietnamese (which he didn't understand other than to know when they were talking about him - and laughing).   Eventually, when the last relative came Stateside, she filed divorce papers.  And he didn't see this coming.  I love you long-time!

And who knows?  Maybe that Russian mail-order bride or that young girl from the Philippines really does love you. It has been known to happen.  On the other hand, it is kind of awkward when you meet some 50-something guy with a 20-year-old wife from overseas and you realize he is gunning far above his league.  I mean, what do you say?  "So how did you two meet?"  It gets awkward.

But then again, such arrangements have occurred, over the centuries, and life goes on, and yes, sometimes people in these situations really love each other.  In the West, we question arranged marriages, yet they are prevalent in much of the world and serve a useful social function, gluing society together. And many people in these situations report they are quite happy and in love.  Many if not most second marriages are successful, with spouses able to navigate the tricky waters of pensions and Social Security and disparity in incomes and assets.  It isn't impossible to do, you just have to think it through and talk about it, rationally.  That, and think about "what if?"

Mark and I both believe that, in a lifelong marriage, the first to die is the lucky one.  And often this is the case in real life, as I noted before, where the husband dies of a heart attack, leaving a financial mess that he never disclosed to his wife, to clean up.  But beyond that, picking up the pieces of your life and trying to start over at age 60, 70, or 80, is tough to do.  Finding a new spouse seems like one answer, but it isn't as simple and uncomplicated as when you were 25 and had nothing and were looking for someone to split the rent with.

The older you get and the more successful you become, the harder it is.  Ask Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos.  Do their new paramours really love them, or just that pile of cash they are sitting on?  And do these Billionaires really love their new girlfriends, or just see them as something younger and sexier to entertain themselves with? The subconscious is a powerful thing and a scary thing as well, and none of us like to examine our real motives in that regard - what drives us in life.   The dark hours of the early morning are not good times for such contemplations.