When couples marry, including Customary Marriage, they will automatically be married under community of property, unless they sign a separate antenuptial contract.
This is seen as a way to protect women, especially those who stay at home to raise the family.
The term ‘community of property’ means that the wife is entitled to a share of the joint estate, either on the death of her spouse or when they divorce.
But what is important to understand is that this includes community of profit and loss. It is not just your partner’s assets which you share, but also their debt.
That includes any debt accrued up until the day of the marriage – even if it was a badly managed credit card or a legal judgement.
It is also worth noting that community of property goes both ways. Any assets or debt the wife may have accrued prior the marriage belong equally to the husband.
In theory, community of property seems like a fair approach to ensure financial equality, however, in practice it has serious complications.
While credit providers are supposed to obtain the signature and permission of both spouses, they seldom do, unless it is a significant asset such as a property.
This means a spouse could unwittingly be liable for debt he or she is unaware of.
The same applies to debt review – if one partner selects to be placed under debt review, then both partners are effectively placed under debt review.
Debt counsellors are supposed to get the permission of the spouse, but again this doesn’t always happen.
In many cases the spouses may be separated but not divorced when the one partner enters debt review. Even though they are no longer living together, by law they are married – whether through civil law or customary law – and the debt review will apply to both partners.
Even under customary marriage you can sign an antenuptial agreement, so all couples should carefully consider the pros and cons of the default community of property marriage regime.
When you marry, you are merging your finances – the good and the bad – so make sure you have a contract that protects you both.
This is an important time to think with your head and not with your heart.