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When financial advisor Neal Van Zutphen recently met with new prospective clients, a married couple, the meeting did not go as planned.
The process of going through their financial records prompted the husband to reveal a secret he had been keeping from his wife: $60,000 in credit card debt.
The debts had ballooned during a job transition to supplement the household's cash flow and to pay a business consultant.
"It was probably my most emotionally charged client session in 35 years," said Van Zutphen, president and founder of Intrinsic Wealth Counsel in Tempe, Arizona.
Keeping financial secrets from your spouse or significant other has a name: financial infidelity.
And chances are, suspicions that your partner is not being fully honest with you about money is affecting your relationship.
Two in 5 individuals have deceived their partner financially, according to a new survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education.
Those actions had big consequences, with 75 percent of respondents indicating it affected their relationships. Of that number, 44 percent said it caused an argument and 35 percent said it led to less trust in the relationship, followed by those who ultimately said it led to a divorce (13 percent) or separation as a couple (10 percent). Some 9 percent of respondents, on the other hand, said the deceptions caused them to grow closer.
Those surveyed cited various reasons for the financial infidelity, with 36 percent indicating they believe their finances should be private. That was followed by those who knew their partners wouldn't approve; were embarrassed by their situations and didn't want their partner to find out; and those who feared their partners wouldn't agree with their actions.
A recent report from CreditCards.com found just 52 percent of individuals polled believe their significant other is honest with them when it comes to money. Meanwhile, 61 percent said they are fully honest with their partner about their finances.
About one-third of survey respondents said keeping credit cards and other accounts from a partner is worse than physical infidelity.
The reasons for the dishonesty around finances range from failure to communicate to deceit.
Financial professionals who handle these situations regularly say there are some tell-tale signals to watch out for.
First, notice when your mail no longer includes financial statements, such as credit card bills or solicitations and investment account information, said Lili Vasileff, founder and president of Divorce and Money Matters in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Next, watch out for atypical behavior. That can include lavishing you with gifts or insisting that you account for every nickel and dime, Vasileff said.
"The reason for that is their own behavior has changed and they're trying to deflect from it," Vasileff said.
Vasileff recalled how one husband decided the couple should downsize their home and booked a cruise so they could spend more time together.
Shortly thereafter, the wife was in a new condo and the husband walked away from the marriage. The wife "never saw it coming," Vasileff said.
Also, Vasileff said to watch out for changes in habits.
"It's really true when people are having an affair that they start buying new underwear" or going to the gym regularly, said Peggy Tracy, owner of Priority Planning in Wheaton, Illinois.
Be on the lookout for changes in income or cash flow, including cash withdrawals or checks made out to cash. Tracy helped one client realize her husband had a drug problem when their financial records revealed regular withdrawals of $200 every other day.
If you feel that you have been duped, you want to make sure you have concrete evidence, Vasileff said. That includes finding out how much money you are taking in and what is really being spent.
"There's nothing worse than having that accusation being disproved within three minutes," Vasileff said. Or worse, spending a lot of money to investigate where the funds have gone.
"If you're looking for $10,000 and it costs you $15,000 to find it, it's ridiculous," Vasileff said.
Couples can work to prevent the need from hiding their spending in the first place by sitting down to talk about money when it's not contentious, Vasileff suggested.
These plans can include setting aside an amount of money — say $10,000 each — that each individual does not have to account for.
For situations that are contentious, remember that everything leaves a paper trail, Tracy said.
"It is the truth," Tracy said. "It is black and white and cannot be argued with."
Documents helped Tracy identify hundreds of thousands of dollars one client's husband had hidden through estimated payments to the Internal Revenue Service.
The good news for the other spouse in these situations is that you generally are entitled to half of marital money that is spent on nonmarital items, Tracy said.
Before it gets to that point, the best thing to do is to speak up when you first notice that something is off.
"You know in your heart what's going on," Tracy said. "Either you're going to stick your head in the sand or have the courage to confront it."
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