When your relationship doesn’t fit the mould – a look at the practical implications

What happened in 1880?

In 1842, at the age of 22, Lady J.C.P.H van Aefferden married J.W.C van Gorcum, 33, colonel of the Dutch Cavalry and militia commissioner in Limburg, in the Netherlands. She was Catholic and of the nobility and he was Protestant and not of noble standing. This caused quite a commotion in the town of Roermond, where the two lived. Despite this, they remained married for 38 years.

The colonel died in 1880 and was buried on the Protestant part of the cemetery against the wall. His wife passed away in 1888. Defying her family, she decided not to be buried in the family tomb but on the other side of the wall, as close as possible to her husband, on the opposite side of the wall. Two clasped hands connect the graves across the wall.

Love and life complications

Wars have been fought over religion, culture, and custom – in the public arena and on the personal front – for as long as people have adhered to these. Yet love, social interaction and compassion has quite often crossed those divides. In life, as in death, it has caused strife amongst families and communities. Unfortunately, at my practice I have seen too many women who had converted for the sake of their spouse, who, upon divorce or the death of their partner, were not accepted by their own or their spouse’s family.

A second chance at love warms the heart – but not necessarily everyone’s. Intrigue and family feuds have ensued between first and second spouses and their offspring, again, leading to wars aplenty – whether it be between nations, clans or kin.

LGBTQIA+ couples are protected by the Constitution and can legally adopt and foster children. However, they do face additional levels of discrimination and legal, institutional, and administrative challenges – even more so if there are children involved.

Far be it for me to discourage you from exploring what lies outside of your particular social, religious or cultural boxes! I just want to remind you, whilst you are floating on the pretty clouds of love and fuzzy feelings, that at some point you must come back down to earth and deal with the messiness of life and those around you.

I want to point out some of the things you need to consider – preferably before tying any sort of knot. Remember, you will, God willing, become old. Your children will grow up and you will have to prepare for what will happen to them and what you own after you are no longer around. You will change, how you relate to your beliefs and what your expectations of and obligations towards family are will change or at the very least, become more complicated.

How well do you know your (potential) other half?

  1. What do you know about their family structure beliefs and expectations?

    • Belief structure and customs – you may live in the city and have invented a life for yourself that is very different from where you or your (potential) spouse comes from. At some point you may have to go home. What are your expectations of each other? And of your/their family? Are you and they prepared for this?

    • Family history and contact details – Even if you or your (potential) spouse do not speak to your respective families, you may need to communicate in an emergency. If you are to build a life together, you both need to know where the other comes from and how they got to be where they are now. If the family disapproves of your relationship, how will you deal with that in an emergency?

    • Cultural practices and responsibilities – Are there cultural events that you need to be aware of, like coming-of-age ceremonies and rituals you need to consider, should you choose to have children? How do you and they feel about elder care or taking in children from family members and the financial implications of these?
  1. What are their financial responsibilities and obligations linked to prior relationships?

    • Children from a previous liaison – whether the parent is involved in the child’s life or not, they do have financial responsibilities towards the care of any minors. A divorce settlement may have prescriptions that need to be followed. This can also affect their estate.

    • Alimony – does your (prospective) spouse have obligations to support their previous spouse? This may be through various channels like financial means, remaining on their medical aid or staying on a jointly owned property. The relationship details of the previous relationship may not be that important, but the consequences may affect your finances. It is also important to note that South African law does not protect people who cohabitate. Partners do not have the same legal standing and obligations. This can particularly have an impact if you pass away without a Will.

    • Debt and shared assets – These are particularly important to those who are (or were) married in community of property. Should the relationship end, there may be debts to pay that you have not made yourself. Shared property and moveable assets may take a while to unbundle and the financial burden of coping with life in the meantime may cause those involved to go into debt. This may affect their credit score if not managed carefully. Not being open about this – if you are married in community of property – can pour cold water on your dream of buying a big-ticket item like a home.

    • Religious and customary rules around savings, investment, and inheritance – Whilst you are young, footloose and fancy free, you may not think this is so important. However, remember, you are not only in a relationship with one another. It is important that you discuss this with a knowledgeable financial advisor.

The consequences of not having these conversations early on

  1. Your relationship with your spouse may not be able to withstand the strife and one or both parties can be left feeling betrayed and resentful.
  1. It is always the most vulnerable that suffer the most, often when they can least afford it.
  1. The unintended parties may stand to inherit and contesting such a situation can be extremely costly and time consuming.
  1. Not understanding the religious or cultural background of your spouse can lead to misunderstandings that can rob not only you of supportive relationships but also your children.
  1. Mending fences when you are all reeling from the sudden passing of a loved one can be extremely difficult and compound the trauma.

What should you NOT do?

  1. Do NOT trust Google.
  2. Do NOT buy a DIY Will at CNA and think that is enough.
  3. Do NOT rely on hearsay or conventional wisdom.
  4. Do NOT leave it up to the Universe to decide your lot in life.

What should you do?

  1. Take your time – life and relationships are not about speed but endurance. Prepare yourself well.
  1. Really listen – do not make assumptions. These can lead to needless misunderstandings. Ask the difficult questions, it will only enrich your relationship.
  1. Learn – if this person is important to you, surely you would want to deepen your understanding of where they come from? This means doing some of your own research and discussing this with your partner. You both may gain insight from it!
  1. Surround yourself with people in the know – professionals are meant to be emotionally neutral and can therefore provide a more dispassionate appraisal of your situation. However, not all professionals are equal. Make sure there is no conflict of interest. This occurs when the advisor can manipulate the outcome and thereby increase their income. Eg. you need a million Rand life cover to provide liquidity in your estate. The advisor sells you a two million Rand package because this will increase their commission by R4000. This is why I say it is best to choose an advisor that is focused on solving YOUR problem rather than theirs.

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