Joint accounts? Not for today's couple with savings to lose

Individuals bring more assets to their partnership, but divorce makes them wary of sharing
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The Independent Online

The pledge to share one's worldly goods might be in the wedding vows, but it is no longer a key part of marriage, according to new research. Fear of divorce and the rise of second marriages has led to more people keeping their money separate from their partner's, a study has found. The trend is worrying equality campaigners, who believe that the pay gap – which sees women in the UK paid 16.4 per cent less than men – is extending inequality within the home, too.

Researchers found that between 1995 and 2005 both married and co-habiting people became much more financially independent, holding savings and investments in their own names rather than jointly.

"There has been a definite drop in joint holdings," said Dr Heather Laurie, director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Essex University and co-author of a report into the trend. "The whole issue of remarriage is a trigger for people keeping their finances separate," she said. "The increase in cohabitation could be part of it, too. Cohabiting couples are less likely to hold things jointly, even when you control for age and how long they have been together."

The trend towards marrying later in life – the average age of first-time brides rose from 23.1 in 1961 to 30 in 2009 – has also been cited as a reason for the shift away from joint savings, because people have more time to acquire their own wealth.

The report looked at data from 12,000 people in 1995, 2000 and 2005. Equality campaigners believe that the research highlights the need for tax and welfare to be assessed on an individual, rather than household basis. "All too often, there's an assumption that women who are married or cohabiting enjoy the same financial situation as their partners," said Anna Bird, of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality in the UK. "This is not only untrue – as this report shows – it's also dangerous. The notion that men and women in relationships pool their incomes and split costs down the middle has served to mask many women's often precarious financial status."

Kate Ferris Neely, 26, a community and learning co-ordinator, and her partner, Adam Kerr, 25, a sports scientist, have separate savings. "We have a joint account into which we pay money for the mortgage and bills, but I have savings in my own name," she said. "As I work part time and he is full time it wouldn't be fair if we shared it all. I always have some money in my own account; I think it is a security thing."

Despite this growing independence, researchers found that women's emotional well-being is boosted by their partner's savings, even if they aren't held jointly. Of women whose partners had savings, 60 per cent had higher levels of well-being than women whose partners had none.

"I think that is a very primitive thing," said Corinne Sweet, a relationship psychologist. "Women can feel particularly vulnerable if they have children, and there is a feeling that their men will protect them."

Men's well-being was not found to be affected by their wife's savings.

While money is traditionally a source of tension in relationships, the recession has exacerbated this: the number of divorces stemming from financial problems rose during 2007 to 2009, from 13 to 17 per cent.

The research found that women are less likely than men to have investments: 38 per cent compared with 42 per cent. And where they do have money of their own, the amounts are, typically, significantly lower.