My husband watches TV all day while I cook and clean. He has a monthly income of $8K and a P.O. box to hide his finances. I found his will — and it left me reeling


Dear Moneyist, 

My spouse hides his money and all of his investments are hidden.

I have lived in Boston since 2006. I moved from New York and gave up my job of 16 years because we got married and I relocated, leaving my two adult children, who were 21 and 24. I divorced my first husband in 1998 and met my spouse in 2000. My husband, who is 70, will be retired four years in October. He spent most of his career in the U.S. Army Reserve, where he spent 24 years.

I see his mail from time to time, but he keeps everything locked up in a file cabinet. He gets four incomes per month, and everything goes directly to his accounts. He lives off his Social Security each month. I work full time and make $50,000 a year. My husband gives me $150 each month. Sometimes, he forgets. When I ask for it, he gets angry or doesn’t give it to me.

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He has never been married before, and has three daughters in their 40s and 50s. He has no connection to them at all, but I do think they know where we live. He bought a three-bedroom home before we married. I have not contributed to this mortgage, and my name is not on the deed. I pay for water, heat, phone, food and other things. He has an income of over $8,000 a month. He has saved and invested in CDs, and has a 457 Smart Plan, among other investments. I have my own 457, and I put $400 into it every month.

Anytime I ask for more money, he gets very angry at me. He even lies and tells me he has no money on him, just credit cards. Then I check when he goes to sleep and he has plenty of money in his wallet! I don’t take it, but it saddens me that he treats me this way.

He always uses his credit card or bank card to buy things. I barely see him take money out of his wallet, and he never leaves his wallet on the table. He also has a post-office box, which he said his sister gave to him. All important papers are out of my sight, but there are a bunch here in the house, kept in his closet in plastic bags tied in a knot. I have never seen anything like this.

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He has diabetes and a chronic back issue. He sits all day watching TV, while I do all the cooking and cleaning. I am 60 years old and tired of working alone. I know he is sick, but he doesn’t care how I feel. I can’t get $5 if I ask for it. He tells me I have my own job and that I am a beneficiary on two of his investment accounts. I don’t want to get thrown out into the streets if something happens to him.

I did recently find a will he had hidden in the house, and it left me reeling: His favorite sister will inherit his estate. Is that will still valid, given that we married in 2005? I spoke to him about the will and tried to air my concerns. He got mad at me (again) and said he was going to change it. He never did. But I was able to make a copy of it.

I love him, but I know this is totally not right. How can I protect myself?

Saddened by all the Secrets

Dear Saddened,

You can’t protect yourself by living a life ruled by another human being.

Thank you for sharing your story. I found it difficult to read, and I have read many heartbreaking (and inspiring) stories, in come cases by the same letter writer. I’ve even had a couple who were battling over secret wills. Your husband is not in touch with his children. We don’t know whether that is by choice. He keeps his financial life hidden away in plastic bags and a post-office box. He is quick to anger, and he watches TV while you serve him food and clean his home.

Massachusetts is a separate property state. Anything your husband owned prior to this marriage, which includes the house you live in and separate bank and savings accounts, belongs to him. Separate property also includes inheritance you or your husband may receive during your marriage. If you fell down a manhole tomorrow and broke your leg, and you were awarded $100,000 in a lawsuit, that too would belong to you and you alone.

His last will and testament was valid when it was written, but the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts ruling last year cast new light on that. In Ciani vs. MacGrath, the court ruled that Susan Ciani, the widow of Raymond Ciani, was effectively entitled to a share of this estate, despite leaving his estate to his four children, who were the result of a prior marriage. The ruling essentially overrode existing law on inheritance and marriage.

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Ciana was in a situation not dissimilar from your own. “Susan challenged the will, invoking her spousal rights detailed in Massachusetts General Law Chapter 191, Section 15. In particular, Susan sought a forced-sale on three properties Raymond owned,” according to Pabian & Russell, a Boston-based law firm. “This case turned not on whether Susan had a right to a share in the properties, but rather to the breadth of her share granted by the statute.”

“Raymond’s children argued that Susan’s statutory right only gave her an interest in one-third of the income produced from the real estate, and thus, not having an ownership interest, she could not force a sale. Susan, however, argued that she had a life estate in an undivided one-third of each property,” the firm adds. The court ruled otherwise; had she not won, she would have been entitled to a life estate, that is, been allowed under the current law to live in the home for the rest of her life.

The court case addressed and essentially reinterpreted an archaic state law. “With this, the court ruled Susan can petition to partition the properties and therefore force sales,” Pabian & Russell added. “Once sold, Susan’s right to profits would be determined by actuarial tables, which are based on age, life expectancy and current interest rates. Had both sides not agreed to sell, Susan would have been allowed to live in the properties for the rest of her life.”

But what if you decide to leave him now? Is it worth staying with him for another 10, 15 maybe 20 years? Living in a community property state does not mean that any money earned by you and your husband during your marriage is split 50/50 in the event that you divorce. In a case such as this, a judge would take into consideration your age; the length of your marriage; your incomes, job prospects and financial needs; and, last but not least, behavior during the marriage itself.

A premarital will would not hold muster. Section 2-301 states: “If a testator’s surviving spouse married the testator after the testator executed a will, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive, as an intestate share, no less than the value of the share of the estate the spouse would have received if the testator had died intestate as to that portion of the testator’s estate, if any, that neither is devised to a child of the testator who is born before the testator married the surviving spouse.”

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This is a textbook case of financial abuse. In fact, here is a direct quote from the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Financial abuse happens when an abuser takes control of finances to prevent the other person from leaving and to maintain power in a relationship. An abuser may take control of all the money, withhold it, and conceal financial information from the victim.” You are inside of it, you can’t see it. You need to reach out for help.

You have come to accept your low status in this relationship. I don’t see any consideration, trust and respect — just some of the hallmarks of a loving relationship. Financial abuse is a form of domestic violence. That may sound alarmist, but not all scars are visible, many are psychological and have the same insidious effect: to control and subdue another person. You need a plan and a support network. You can’t see the bars on your window. You can walk through them, if you want to.

He has maintained complete control — not only over his finances, but over his marriage, his home and what he deems appropriate to disclose to his wife of 15 years. Love means different things to different people. We are not all built the same. So I have some questions for you about what you want in life, primarily because our financial decisions are often based on our own experiences, character and emotions. Whether we like to admit it or not, these things are inextricably linked.

What does love mean to you? Is it a home where you feel safe and comforted and heard and respected and appreciated? Or is it a house with four walls and a roof, central heating, food on the table, a refrigerator and television, and running water? Do you feel loved? Does your husband’s home feel like your home? Does your relationship feel like a balance of give and take, compromise and mutual support? Do you laugh together? Does he share his time and his affection with you?

The Moneyist: My father left everything to my son. When I called the attorney about the will, my son got very upset. I now need financial help. Should I ask him for money?

I am always cautious of the blanket statement, “I love him, but…” Sometimes, we need to question our definition of love, independent of our financial and even our emotional needs. Love is not conditional, and the status quo in your marriage should not depend on your not asking questions about money, or on anything that might threaten or rattle the way you both choose to live your lives. That includes your submission to his wishes and your husband’s finely oiled marriage machine.

Because many situations we find ourselves in — whether it’s debt, a job we don’t like, a car or house or lifestyle we can’t afford, or an unhappy marriage — are a choice. You are not trapped by your husband’s financial secrecy, controlling behavior or unwillingness to participate in household chores, or even the ever-present possibility that he may fly into a rage. You are here by choice. That brings me to the good news: This is your life and you do have choices. In fact, you have lots of them.

The Moneyist: My stepfather and mother pooled resources to buy a home. My mom died in 2003 and he just passed away. His kids are selling their house — am I entitled to anything?

I can’t tell you what to do, but I do believe that you wrote to me and shared your story for a reason. I may be wrong, but the current state of play does not appear to be making you happy and I sense an overwhelming fear of financial insecurity and the unknown. Based on what you told me about his three daughters, it’s probably a fair guess to say that this is not the first time someone close to him has decided it was time to break ties. You deserve to a good life. But you have to believe that.

If your husband wanted a housekeeper instead of a wife, he could still hire a housekeeper to cook and clean and shop for his groceries. He is one of the few Americans who could probably afford a live-in housekeeper, if he really wanted one: The annual salary of a live-in housekeeper starts at around $45,000 per year, according to some estimates. That way, he can cancel his post-office box and have all of his investment-account mail delivered to his home.

As you have been married for more than 10 years, you are entitled to half of your husband’s Social Security benefits if you divorce, unless you remarry, of course. Also, you would likely be entitled to a portion of his military pension. Money he added to his retirement accounts during your marriage are also likely community property. A lawyer recommended by a women’s aid organization will help you strategize for your financial future, including temporary support if need be. It’s all waiting for you.

You have big questions facing you. What price, freedom? What price, happiness? What price, financial security? Remember this: the most valuable thing you have in life is not money.

It’s time.

The Moneyist: My father-in-law’s business went south and my mother-in-law has never worked a day in her life. How can I avoid supporting them?

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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