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- In financial documents, some breadwinning women say that their husbands are listed first by default.
- This may be a firm policy or habit that carries over from previous years, or echoes of sexism.
- To be listed first in financial documents, be direct about it — or find someone with similar values.
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Tana Williams, an operational lead and blogger, has been the breadwinner in her household since she and her husband married in 2009. However, when her accountant filed her taxes over the years, she noticed something: Her husband was listed as the primary filer and she was listed as the spouse.
Williams told Insider that she never asked to be put first on their joint taxes. However, the more she thought about it, the more it made sense for her to be listed before her husband.
“I’m the one who files all this stuff, who pulls together the paperwork,” said Williams. “If there are other questions, they’ll want to reach out to me first because I’m going to have access to it. Not that he couldn’t dig through and find it, but he just doesn’t deal with that stuff as often as I do.”
It happened again when Williams and her husband got their second mortgage in 2015. The papers listed her husband first, even though she made more money and had been part of the credit union for more than 10 years. “He had a W-2 job was I had a 1099 job. They said it’s better this way, because his job is considered more stable,” Williams said.
Anna N’Jie-Konte, a CFP and the founder of Dare to Dream Financial Planning, says that financial professionals often default to the husband as the point of contact or decision-maker for different-sex couples, regardless of where the wealth comes from.
“The sad part of women being the breadwinner is that they’re not necessarily freed from a lot of these gender dynamics and considerations,” N’Jie Konte told Insider.
‘I think language can hold women back’
Research from the University of Michigan and the US Treasury Department found that men were listed as the primary taxpayer 88.1% of the time in joint tax returns when filing 2020 taxes.
The study also found that according to state averages, putting the man’s name first in a joint return may be associated with religious conservatism, religiosity, and sexist attitudes. In states where those attitudes are stronger, men are more likely to be listed first.
Charlotte Laws, an author, had a similar experience to Williams when her accountant did her taxes in 2000. Laws told Insider that it was the only year she and her husband filed joint taxes. She made more than her husband, but the accountant put his name as the primary taxpayer.
But it wasn’t just taxes. Six years later, Laws and her husband bought a house together. Laws worked as a real estate agent and took charge of the homebuying process: finding the house, working on the contracts and inspections, dealing with the escrow and title companies — and putting most of the money down. Laws’ husband was still listed first on their deed and real estate documents.
“It’s not a big deal to offer a choice. For that escrow officer, that banker, that title officer, or loan officer to just say to the couple, ‘How do you want the names to read? Whose name do you want first?’ It surprises me that they wouldn’t do that,” Laws said.
Kelly Burch, a freelance journalist, had a similar experience when an accountant filed her business taxes with her husband listed as the primary taxpayer, even though she was the sole income earner in their house.
Burch wrote for Insider that, although there isn’t a benefit to having one listed spouse as the primary earner over the other, she wanted to be respected as a business owner. When she asked her husband and several women, they said she had a right to be angry.
“I think this happens a lot. And you know, money is power. It’s like status,” Laws said. “The respect goes to the first person listed. If you were doing a Christmas card, you wouldn’t put the kid’s name first, because they’re just a kid. You don’t give them that respect or that status because they’re a child. I think language can hold women back.”
Joint taxes can be extra complicated
Cary Carbonaro, a CFP and the senior vice president at Advisors Capital Management, told Insider that it doesn’t matter who is listed first in a joint financial document because it’s considered a 50-50 partnership by the financial institution or agency reviewing the form.
For Kris Patterson, an educator, it wasn’t so clear. She has her own business and makes around the same amount of money as her husband. About a year ago, Patterson and her husband decided to file their taxes jointly.
“I had a bill due. Even though we filed jointly, the portion of the bill was my business. I paid it under my tax ID number. We kept getting bills saying this bill wasn’t paid. They put it under his account,” Patterson told Insider. “Even though we filed jointly, they just automatically put him as a priority. So anything that came in, even if it was for me, I had to put it under his tax ID to pay off my tax bill. I thought that was a little crazy.”
Patterson says that while it doesn’t matter to her who is listed first in a financial document, she did find the experience a little unnerving.
“I knew I had paid it,” Patterson said. “The good thing is that once they found that I did pay it — it was sitting there — they didn’t charge me any penalties and interest.”
What women can do to be listed first on financial documents
Larry Stone, a CPA and the president of Stone Wealth Strategies, says many tax professionals will often set up tax returns in the same manner as those of previous years. “We take the husband and wife and we put it in the same order it was on the prior year’s tax return,” Stone said.
If your accountant, mortgage lender, or financial advisor isn’t already listing you first, you may be able to change that. However, it could take some work.
1. Be direct about who should be listed first
N’Jie-Konte recommends being direct with the financial professional and telling them who should be listed first in financial documents.
“If it’s something that you notice and makes you uncomfortable, there’s absolutely no reason not to ask to have it changed,” N’Jie-Konte said. “I think practical effects of them changing whose is listed first is minuscule compared to the emotional effects.”
2. Find a financial professional who has a similar value system
If the financial professional doesn’t understand your perspective, you might consider switching to someone who understands your input.
Burch told Insider that when she searched for a new accountant, she shared her experience to see if they would understand her perspective. Insider keeps a list of the best online financial advisors, if you need a place to start.
N’Jie-Konte suggests looking for someone who has a similar value system — “someone that prioritizes women’s financial independence and empowerment.”
Sophia Acevedo is a banking reporter at Insider. She covers bank reviews, banking guides, and banking and savings articles for Personal Finance Insider. She is also a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF).
Sophia joined Insider in July 2021 and is an alumna of California State University Fullerton where she studied journalism and minored in political science. She is based in Los Angeles.
You can reach out to her on Twitter at @sophieacvdo or email email@example.com.
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