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My Partner Hid His Debt From Me For Years. Then, He Died

Welcome to Taking Stock, a space where we can take a deep breath and try to figure out what the COVID-19 economy really means for our finances. Every month, personal finance expert Paco de Leon will answer your most difficult, emotionally charged questions about money. This year has forced many of us to reprioritize our finances, and there’s no clear road map for getting through the pandemic yet — but Taking Stock is here to help us figure it out together.
Last time, we talked about what exactly constitutes "financial infidelity." Now, we’ve asked Refinery29 readers whether withholding financial information is always a lie — and always a deal breaker. Are there some money-related things that you shouldn't have to disclose to a romantic partner?
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Do you have a question or dilemma you’d like to see answered as part of Taking Stock? Submit it here or send us an email at moneyquestions@refinery29.com.
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Mae, 32, Oregon
For Mae, a former partner's secrets have had long-term financial and emotional impact on her life. "My long-term boyfriend hid enormous amounts of business and personal debt from me," she says. "He was self-employed in a well-paying field, and I had no reason to suspect anything was amiss."
"He revealed a terminal illness to me that he had known about since the beginning of our relationship, about a year before he died," Mae says. "I discovered the debt after his death. We had a comfortable lifestyle and he assured me that he had life insurance in my name for when he passed."
"When I was trying to find the policy information, I discovered he had kept his business afloat with many bridge loans that had exorbitant interest rates. In fact, there was no life insurance at all," she continues. "He had stopped making payments on his car and our home and was under investigation by his field's regulatory board for fraud. It was incredibly devastating, and I suddenly found myself with nothing. I had to sell almost everything we owned and move out of our home within a week of his death."
"Had he still been alive, I think this may have been a deal breaker," Mae says. "It revealed so much about his character that I didn't see, and I felt deeply betrayed. It wasn't the fact that his accounts were empty, it was that I wasn't respected enough to be told the truth."
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"My current partner and I are open about finances and had discussions about our financial past and how our shared financial future will look," she says. "We don't know the balance of each other's checking account, and I would never ask. As long as we each take care of our shared financial obligations, I don't feel that either of us has the right to that information. We both have retirement accounts and investments and agreed that we would continue to contribute to them separately if we were to get married and to sign a prenuptial agreement releasing any claim to those accounts."
"Obviously, the deception in my previous relationship has shown me the importance of being transparent with a partner," says Mae. "Conversations about money can be really awkward, but secrets are worse."
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Kay, 31, NYC
"I’m the one with the secret debt, and I’m broke," Kay admits. "I think it will be a deal breaker if my partner finds out."
"I’m keeping this a secret, because I don’t want to let him down. We want to move [in] together and possibly put money down on our own place. I feel embarrassed and ashamed that I’m the one who will likely be setting this dream back."
And though she feels guilty about hiding debt from a partner, that doesn't mean she believes romantic partners need to disclose every little part of their respective finances. "Not everything should be shared," Kay says. "Just joint matters."
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Nooreen, 29, UK
"My ex-husband withheld finances from me," Nooreen says. "He was a bouncer at a club — as well as a drug dealer."
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"I didn't know about the drug-dealing," she says. "I found out when we bought our house and he insisted on paying with cash in full. This house was worth over $2 million!"
For Nooreen, this lie of omission wasn't a complete deal breaker, though. "We worked through it, although I made him stop dealing and doing drugs," she says. "We later divorced for other reasons."
"I think the major [financial] things should be shared! At the very least all joint/fixed expenses," she says. "I believe that each person should have their own fun money, but the majority should be shared."
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Kinsey, 34, Texas
"It wasn't a secret account or debt, but he alluded to the fact he owned his condo," says Kinsey. "When it came to buying a house together, I found out he actually didn't own it, which decreased the down payment I had assumed for our home. I then found out he didn't have a savings account for a huge purchase like a new home."
"This wasn't a deal breaker for me, as it wasn't like he was hiding a huge amount of debt. I ended up fronting all the down payment through the sale of my condo," Kinsey continues. "I also used a portion of that to renovate the house. The only issue we had about the situation is he wanted to use the money for something he wanted for the house, like an outdoor  kitchen, instead of updating the existing kitchen. Sorry (not really), but if I put up the money, I get what I want right now. You can save up for what you want."
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"My husband knew I had inherited money from my parents, but I never told him the amount. Currently, he still doesn't know the full extent," she says. "I have told him our kids' college will be covered by the inheritance, but that's about it. I don't want him to know he's married to wealth, because I want us to be equal partners. We do well in our careers, and so we live comfortably off our salaries. Plus, I don't touch the money anyway, just let it grow through investments. I may tell him in the future, if we ever have an emergency."
Kinsey doesn't believe that being in a relationship means you have to give your partner complete knowledge of your finances. "I think some things are none of their business," she says, "but you have to talk about everything. For example, my husband and I have a joint account that we contribute to separately to pay shared expenses — mortgage, utilities, insurance, etc. As long as we each pay equally into the bills, we're fine."
"We also agreed to contribute to retirement and save separately, since we both work full-time," Kinsey says. "I believe it's none of his business what I'm spending my personal money on, as long as I don't go into debt and can still contribute the agreed-upon amount every month."
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