No need to leap at that proposal of marriage

It may be a good time to propose marriage, says Faith Glasgow, but you should do your sums first
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Leap year means women can traditionally propose marriage tomorrow, 29 February. But do not let the stars in your eyes blur your long-term vision. Before you do anything rash, consider: is marriage really the best financial deal?

If you are a high-flier besotted by an impoverished artist, the answer could well be no. "The poorer party, man or woman, is better off getting married," Ann Northover, a family lawyer with the London solicitor Gordon Dadds, says. "In legal terms, there's no such thing as a common-law marriage. No matter how long they've been together, if they split, there's no obligation for the wealthier partner (traditionally the man, but increasingly the woman) to pay maintenance, let alone provide a house, unless there's a child."

But if they are married, Ms Northover adds, the poorer partner can claim maintenance, though in a shorter marriage, payments will continue for a limited period. The courts will take the view that the main child-raiser has contributed as much to the relationship as the breadwinner, so equality is increasingly the starting point when dividing assets. Factors influencing that might include one partner's personal inheritance, money earnt before marriage, or a partner's physical disability.

If you are better off than your beloved and do not like the idea of being taken to the cleaners if you divorce, a pre-nuptial contract could be useful. This is a document drawn up to the effect that, "We're getting married, but I have so much in my name, and if we divorce I will keep that money except for a settlement of so much".

They are increasingly used in the UK (but more common in the United States), and Ms Northover says that although they are not necessarily enforceable, they may influence a judge's decision. "You can't know if you'll have children, or whether you'll both be physically or mentally fit when you divorce," she says. "Such considerations are likely to water down the impact of a pre-nuptial contract; but it's still worth doing."

For most women, the financial benefits still stack up on the side of marriage. Even if they do not, no doubt those who want to will tie the knot anyway. Such is love. Still, if you want to increase your chances of marital bliss, think through your family finances beforehand. That means not putting all your eggs in one basket. Fiona Sharp, of IFA Finance4Women, says: "Some couples plough everything in together, but that's risky, especially if you're the wealthier party." She advocates maintaining financial independence by retaining your own current and savings accounts and your own pension. "Don't rely on your husband for income in retirement," she says. "You can always pool resources when you get there."

Set up a joint account for agreed household outgoings such as mortgage, bills and groceries. Then, if either of you feels the urge for unwarranted retail therapy, you can do so out of your own cash. If you are buying a home together, but you have more more capital and pay more of the mortgages, consider being legally designated "tenants in common" rather than "joint tenants", who own an equal share of the property.

Ms Sharp says: "Tenancy in common enables you to choose to whom you wish to leave your share of the property when you die; as a joint tenant it automatically reverts to your spouse, the survivor."

These arrangements are not necessarily easy, especially when one party is better off than the other. Anna Sofat, managing director of the IFA Fiona Price & Partners, says: "Many couples loathe talking about finances, but wrangles over money are one of the prime causes of couples separating. Much is about different attitudes to risk, where one partner is comfortable with bigger debts, fewer savings or less insurance cover than the other."

Ms Sofat says couples should face up to a "what if" exercise: what if my partner is killed, or becomes too ill to work, or is disabled and requires my full-time care? She says: "You need to look at the life insurance, income protection and critical illness cover and at any cover provided by your employers; work out where the gaps are and what's needed to fill it. Many people leave it till they have children, which seems to focus the mind on worst-case practicalities, but they should agree at the start."

'I was married before and we had money problems'

Deborah Jeffries, an advertising standards officer in Bournemouth, was ahead of the game. Rather than propose on 29 February 2000, she got married, so technically, tomorrow is her first wedding anniversary.

"I was married before and we had problems with our joint account," she says. "I was concerned to prevent that happening again, particularly with two children from that marriage. It has made me a dominant character about money, but luckily my husband, Mark, leaves the finances to me, though he knows what's going on."

They have two joint accounts, one for bills and the other for other spending; Ms Jeffries also keeps a separate account "for safety".

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