How to Be Savvy in Your Second Marriage

By Lisa Meidl

It’s happened. You’re up to your eyeballs in romance, and you intend to marry for the second time. Regardless of why you and your first partner went your separate ways, you want to capitalize on the lessons of your first marriage and play it smarter in round two.

Even amidst the butterflies, you can prepare yourself for this new direction in your life.

First, do the emotional work, says Lauren Papp, Ph.D., director of UW- Madison’s Couples Lab.

“You bring your experiences whenever you transition from one relationship to another,” Papp says. “It’s a good point for all of us to stop and consider what contributed to how that first relationship went. Ask yourself if there is anything about yourself that you can work on and change to make your next relationship go more smoothly.”

Don’t think of it as baggage.

“That’s negative,” she says. “Think about those previous experiences as turning points that offer a new opportunity.”

It’s vital that each of you look at your patterns for handling major events. If you’re the type to hole up and process during death, job loss, travel, holidays and relocation, your partner should be aware of that and know how to support you.

“Look ahead and anticipate rather than be taken by surprise,” Papp says.

In 2005, retired nurse Kathleen “Kitty” Law, now 64, married her second husband, Bob Law, 71, after two years of dating, in part because he treats her with appreciation and support.

“He’s the sweetest man I’ve ever met,” she says. “He gives me gifts every day with his attitude, his character and little acts of kindness.”

Before they married, they talked about how to handle finances and their adult children, and where they would live. They decided she’d move to Illinois, where he had a dental business.

Then, seven months after they married, Bob was in a serious ATV accident that left him unable to keep his dental business. So, they sold their Illinois condo and moved back to Madison where they had a lake home. It’s also when they had a deeper conversation with their financial planner about how to ensure each would be secure when the other died.

The Laws did get a pre-nuptial agreement, as do many couples marrying for the second time, says Rhonda Hazen, of Boardman & Clark, LLP. She’s practiced family law for 23 years.

“There are two big areas that come into play: minor children and finances,” Hazen says. “If a couple is going to enter into a new relationship and they have minor children, there is a lot of work and thought that needs to be done.”

It’s a project the couple has to handle themselves, she says, such as who makes rules and holds children accountable or how to work with former spouses while co-parenting. Hazen recommends talking directly to all parties so expectations can be shared and discussed. It may not be that everyone comes to an agreement, but the new couple should be aligned.

The financial aspect of marriage can be especially complicated when one or both have children from a first marriage, when they’ve accrued some retirement interest or if both have a home. It’s also crucial to discuss what happens to assets when they die.

“A woman may want some of those assets to go to her children instead of just automatically going to the spouse,” Hazen says. “That’s a biggie, and it’s often when a ‘prenup’ comes into play.”

It’s also critical that both partners are completely transparent when it comes to what each owes and owns. At some point, says Hazen, she’ll refer the couple to a financial planner if they don’t use one already.

Jody Brown, vice president of wealth management for Summit Financial Advisors, is a financial advisor at Summit Credit Union and has walked many couples through those talks.

“Our job is to remove the emotion and help them look at the facts so we can see what path they’re on and where they might need to adjust,” Brown says. “Even if it’s not a second marriage, people have different personalities when it comes to savings, spending, retirement goals.”

Tracy Ashfield, 58, has been married to her second husband, Tom Burton, 66, for 18 years. She’s president of Ashfield and Associates, a consulting firm that works with credit unions on real estate lending strategies. Tom is a former journalist, now a freelance editor. Even though they were “smitten” with each other, their professional and personal experiences prompted them to be analytical when it came to considering marriage.

“We realized pretty quickly we wanted very much to be together and to grow old together,” Ashfield says. “Although both of our first marriages dissolved for different reasons, each was difficult, and we had both been single for a long time.”

They consulted a lawyer and discussed the financial and legal pros and cons of marriage as well as estate planning and how to handle wills.

“Neither of us was wealthy and neither of us had children,” she says. “We wanted to enjoy the ride of falling in love and finding our sweetheart, but that doesn’t preclude being smart. We wanted to look through the appropriate lenses as we merged our lives together.”

What surprised her was that they hadn’t previously considered many of the questions the pros asked, for example, about travel and entertainment budgets and timing for retirement.

“I think we both genuinely enjoyed the process of asking ourselves as individuals these questions, and then seeing how they compared,” Ashfield says. “Not because we were looking for differences, but because it helped us identify our own desires and how they married or maybe that they needed more conversation.”

Despite what you may believe, one item you don’t have to worry about is that second marriages are more likely to fail. According to Papp, the sampling pool for second marriages is much smaller than first marriages, so the best determining factor is how the two get along and whether they’re determined to work through issues or to give up.

“There’s no formula and no amount of money that can guarantee a relationship’s success,” Papp says. “People in all financial situations need to think about how to work together.”


Check out our Key Questions to Discuss Before Getting Hitched next!

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