The New Love Deal

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What you need to know before you commit.

As June’s sorority of brides takes their walk down the aisle, no detail has been overlooked: They’ve planned the perfect wedding, but have they planned for marriage? How will the couples handle finances, raise their children and deal with meddling in-laws? A serious discussion – and a prenup – might be a better guarantee for happiness.

And what about those couples opting out of marriage altogether, as part of 51 million U.S. households are now headed by unmarried couples? Undoubtedly relationships have become more complex. Luckily three local, impressively credentialed women have collaborated to create a guide that every couple needs. The New Love Deal provides solid advice on “everything you must know before marrying, moving in or moving on” from the three distinct perspectives: divorce attorney Gemma Allen from The Bar, retired domestic relations judge Michele Lowrance from The Bench, and consumer financial expert Terry Savage from The Bottom Line. These women not only speak from their professional knowledge, each has also been divorced.

Gemma Allen has handled some of the toughest divorce cases in Cook County. She has written extensively on the topic of matrimonial law/relationship issues and has seen too many marriages fall apart from lack of communication. “Divorce settlement should not be the first time a couple sits down to talk about finances,” she says. Not only does Ms. Allen see more couples over 50 getting divorced, but couples so young and newly married that unopened wedding presents are issues in the divorce. Her advice in the book offers solutions to avoid the pain and tragedy of a devastating divorce or breakup.

“Good marriages are also financial partnerships,” explains Ms. Allen, who’s been happily remarried for 18 years. “Couples who haven’t discussed their attitudes toward discretionary spending nor tracked their partner’s use and abuse of credit cards can find themselves on a fatal course in their joint financial future,” she observes. “Too many Lindas and Arnolds awaken too late to the fact that their joint monies have been spent on pornography or drugs or other partners. They’ve been sleeping with their own economic terminator”

The IRS is the toughest creditor of all, says Ms. Allen. “If you marry a ‘tax misbehaver’ in haste, you may spend years repenting the fact you didn’t do your economic homework, especially if you filed jointly.” Not only has she seen a divorcing couple’s finances destroyed, but when Uncle Sam gets involved, his or her extended family can be caught in the vortex of the IRS demand to be paid, spreading financial chaos to other family members as well.

Few couples think of bankruptcy on their wedding day, Ms. Allen notes. But for a woman she’ll call Sandie, “the bankruptcy was just the beginning of the financial betrayal. The bankruptcy of her beloved ‘Bob’ was caused by his addiction to online gambling, which she discovered was untreated and uncured.”

With these thoughts in mind, Terry Savage, a nationally known expert on personal finance and the economy, advises couples to exchange credit reports before moving in or getting married. Specifically, www.annualcreditreport.com is the only source of free credit reports authorized by federal law. “It sounds unromantic, but how do you make a plan for a first home or a mortgage unless you’re willing to share your financial information with each other?” she asks. “The credit report doesn’t say what you own or have in retirement accounts. It does show what you owe and your habits in paying your bills.”

Ms. Savage provides financial solutions to the problems that arise if you’re just moving in or planning to marry to avoid issues that can lead to breakup. “It’s not just knowing the finances but planning ahead,” she says. “It’s setting up a system for paying your bills, for each to save for what’s important to themselves and the two of you together. Even to deal with someone’s past debt – is it paid it out of a combined fund or from that partner’s funds? Advance planning will save debilitating arguments in the future.”

Michele Lowrance was a domestic relations judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County for 20 years, as well as a domestic relations lawyer. The author of The Good Karma Divorce, she recently took the next step to be certified as a mediator to help couples work through difficult relationship issues when they decide to part. “We have many relationships in our lives,” she observes. “We need the skill set to dismantle relationships without hurting ourselves, our children and each other.”

Known as an expert facilitator and a judge who helped settle contentious divorces, Ms. Lowrance wishes she had access to this kind of guide when she first married. “Relationships and money are complicated and we may need to protect each other with contracts,” she explains. “Our goal is to give you the tools to keep your fate and the fate of your family in your own hands.”

What began as a book about prenuptial agreements expanded to include cohabitation, civil unions and even postnups. “I’ve seen long-married couples reach a point in their lives together where one is ready to retire and the other is not,” says Ms. Allen. “We help them to think about how they can move ahead and have a life that fits them without necessarily divorcing.”

To critics who say that the book takes the romance out of the relationship, Ms. Savage retorts, “We believe the ability to open yourself to the one you love to discuss these most important topics with respect is a sign of great trust in each other and in your relationship. It’s a very loving and romantic thing to do. And it will improve the odds of success in your life together.”

John Reilly Photograph

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About Karen Kane

Karen Kane, former senior vice president and board secretary of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, writes frequently on leadership and provides corporate communication services to organizations. She was Lifestyle Editor of the Houston Chronicle and a member of senior management for two Chicago firms. A NACD Governance Fellow, she is author of the book Voices of Governance: Why Oversight Is Important to All of Us.