finance

"As someone who's been through separation, I always get asked about one thing: joint debt."

Westpac
Thanks to our brand partner, Westpac

The last thing anyone wants to think about when a relationship breaks down is money, and yet, it’s the number one consideration for most of us.

As someone who’s been there (I separated from my ex-husband a decade ago), and someone who’s seen a lot of friends separate, I know that everyone wants to ensure that they get what they’re owed. But for many people, there’s a deeper concern: What do I do with joint debt?

Naturally, no-one wants to be burdened with a debt – a mortgage, a credit card – which is in joint names with a former partner. We usually have enough baggage from the relationship without still being tied to each other financially afterwards.

In my experience, joint debt is a lot more common than people admit. There’s tax debts, car loans, mortgages, credit cards, unsecured business loans, just for example. Whatever the debt is, at one point most couples made the decision to get into it; and it can be even trickier if the debt’s in just one partner’s name, but it was implied in the relationship that it belonged to both parties.

Mandy Nolan talks about your next steps following a split. Post continues. 

From what I’ve seen, an understanding of where the money and debt is in every relationship, whose name it’s in, and who has access to it, is so crucial for everyone to move forward. Even if you think you’re fully aware, double-check: I’ve known people to only become aware of the extent or existence of a debt after a separation.

Those situations are not pretty – so you really need to be prepared by getting a proper understanding of what your financial status quo is. Using a tool like the Westpac Divorce and Separation Checklist can make that really easy to do.

Because this is the thing that a lot of people don’t realise: banks, such as Westpac, know that life changes significantly after a separation, and they actually want to support their clients through the transition. That includes, depending on the circumstances, helping with access to extra funds for urgent matters, and negotiating temporary terms for repayments. Talking to your bank early can help your figure out your financial position and plan for financial stability in your next stage.

Here are some of the other things the Westpac Divorce and Separation Checklist covers, and some things I’ve learned from experience, you should consider if you’re in that situation:

At a time when communication may not be the easiest, a checklist can help navigate the process. Image: Getty
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1. Basic banking.

Do you know all of your relevant bank accounts - their numbers? Where the statements go? Are they joint accounts? Do you have full authority to deal with things on behalf of both of you? Do you know the name of your bank manager?

It's also wise to protect what you need to; think about creating new passwords and/or email alerts for your bank accounts. Your bank can support you with this, to help protect your privacy.

Other options to consider include creating a new bank account in your name, putting a temporary lock on your credit card, decreasing your spending limits, setting up account alerts and keeping an eye on your balances via your mobile banking app.

Westpac's Separation Checklist is helpful in clarifying what you'd need to do, who you'd need to consult and what documents are required. They also have a Separation Support Guide that's developed in partnership with divorce experts, taking you through the process step by step.

2. Understand your major monthly expenses.

Do you know what your monthly rent/mortgage is? Utilities and other basic bills? What is the minimum you would need per month to maintain your lifestyle?

Some of these are hard questions you may not want to face, but the sooner you know for sure what you're dealing with, the better position you can be in for future financial stability.

3. Superannuation.

Superannuation may seem an issue for the distant future, but, especially if one of you has been raising children and not in full-time work, it needs to be addressed. You both probably have at least some - find out where, and how much it is.

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There are some basic things you can do before lawyers are involved. Image: Getty

4. Plan for the unexpected.

Part of thinking about your future is planning for the worst-case scenario. Both partners in a financial relationship should have independent wills. Consider having a Power of Attorney drawn up, especially if you are not married. This can give you power to deal with banks and business affairs in the event your partner is unable to.

And make sure to have a strong support network of people you can trust who can help if things don't go how you expect. There's friends and family of course, but professional advisors like lawyers, accountants, financial planners and psychologists also might form part of your "helper" tribe.

5. Locate your property/title documents.

Is the house in your name, or joint names? What about the cars? Work out what you own.

Westpac's Separation Calculator helps you get a clear and precise view of all assets and liabilities - which may not just be the "big things" like a home or investments.

It could be something sentimental, like a family heirloom or a treasured personal item.

And in conclusion...

Always remember that looking after yourself means looking after your money, so you can look forward to a brighter future. So take the help that's available to you.

Westpac

Negotiating the financial side of a separation can be complex, which is why Westpac has made available a range of checklists and resources to help support Australians through what can be an overwhelming and difficult time. If you or someone you love is going through a separation visit westpac.com.au/separation, call Westpac's Customer Assist line on 1800 067 497, or speak with your local branch staff.

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