June 09, 2021

Finding Out About Wife’s Big Trust Fund

By Charlotte Cowles@charlottecowles


My wife and I got married last year. I’m in my mid 30s, and she’s in her early 30s. During our relationship, she shared with me that she had a trust fund that could help us with a down payment for our first home, but she didn’t know how much money was in the account.

I have never made a huge paycheck, but I’ve been an aggressive saver and investor my whole life. I was also very lucky that I went to a state university and have no student loans. This has allowed me to accumulate over $900K in savings and investments over the years I’ve been working. We also got $50K in wedding gifts, which put our net worth slightly over $1 million. At least I thought.

This year, we did our taxes together for the first time, and I found out there was $300K in the trust fund my wife mentioned. I was stunned. That’s a lot more than I anticipated.

We currently put 20 to 30 percent of our income toward our savings and retirement. But knowing this new net worth, should that change?

Congratulations on getting married! And I’m impressed that you’ve been so disciplined about saving money — it sounds like you’re in a pretty great place financially. But when it comes to your wife’s trust fund, I think you’re asking the wrong question. Trusts tend to be complicated, and you shouldn’t assume anything about hers — and what it means for you and your collective savings — before you ask her more about it.

Most people assume that having a trust fund is akin to winning the lottery — a one-way ticket to spending the rest of your life on a beach or at least never worrying about money again. While it’s certainly a giant privilege to have any resources dropped in your lap — especially $300K — the reality is probably trickier than you might think. “People commonly talk about ‘trust funds’ as though trusts are all the same, but there are many variations, each with specific benefits and restraints,” says Corbin Blackwell, a certified financial planner at Betterment.

Technically, a trust fund is defined as a legal entity that holds property or assets on behalf of another person or group. As a rule, a trust must be managed by a third party, known as a trustee, who has a duty to make sure that the assets are properly looked after (i.e., not squandered or badly invested). And there are often strings attached — limitations on what the money can be used for, when it can be used, and who can use it. “Making sure you understand what the trust is set up to provide for is critical,” says Blackwell. “For example, funds might be earmarked only for education, for special medical needs, or for distribution after the beneficiary has reached a certain age.”

Your wife may not have direct access to her own trust fund at this point, which would explain why she didn’t know how much was in it. You should also know that trust funds set up before a marriage — like hers — don’t qualify as marital property in most states. So don’t assume that money is “yours,” because legally, it probably isn’t. “If the trust only has your spouse listed as a beneficiary, you may not be entitled to those assets — unless your spouse were to give them to you directly,” says Blackwell. Some trusts even have special provisions to keep spouses from getting their hands on the money.

Alternatively, the trust could give you relatively free rein to spend the assets as you please. But even if that is the case, your wife may have specific ideas about what she wants to use the money for. (In fact, it seems like she already said so: a house.) You need to respect her wishes here, not only because she’s your wife, but also because this particular chunk of money may have special meaning for her. “Most people receive a trust from a loved one, so they may want to honor that person’s legacy or put some guard rails on the types of things they feel are appropriate to use the trust for,” says Blackwell.

Of course, you won’t know any of this until you ask your wife more about it. So, your next step is to sit down with her and figure out how you want to approach money more generally in your marriage. This will be an evolving conversation, and one that you need to have regularly, says psychologist Shannon Curry, who frequently counsels couples on financial issues:

“It’s important for both partners to address their goals for saving. What does saving mean to each of them, individually? What’s the purpose?” When you ask these questions, be careful to remain open, she adds. “Use phrases like, ‘Tell me more about that,’ and, ‘What feelings do you have about this?’”

While you’re at it, try to discuss what money means to each of you. “That differs for each person based on their life experiences,” says Curry. “For some people, money equals safety and security, and not having enough of it is terrifying. For others, money is about pleasure and generosity. None of these views are wrong; they just express different values and approaches.”

Curry recommends setting aside an appointed time to talk about this stuff once every couple of weeks, especially at the beginning of your marriage, as you’re adjusting to sharing a life (and a budget) together. Having a date on the calendar also takes some of the pressure off each individual conversation — they’re part of a bigger process.

Once you do have a better understanding of your larger financial picture — including your wife’s trust — then you can make a better decision about how it should affect your savings goals moving forward, if it does at all. Either way, it’s probably worth enlisting a financial advisor and/or tax planner to help if you haven’t already, since trust assets can vary a lot and tend to be taxed heavily.

Above everything else, remember that the ball is in your wife’s court here. You may be accustomed to making scrupulous financial decisions for yourself, but in the case of her trust, her wishes are paramount. It’s important that you both know how to communicate about them.