Death, divorce and other unexpected financial travesties wreak havoc on thousands of Kiwi women's lives each year. Sudden unexpected singleness hits women's finances hard.

One in three Kiwi marriages breaks up eventually. That's 22 divorces a day. But it's not just divorce. If you marry a man who is aged 30, there is a 7.72 per cent chance that he will die before he reaches the age of 60, says Statistics New Zealand.

Whether it's death, divorce or even the loss of the major breadwinner's income through illness or unemployment, the lower earner from the relationship can find him or herself in financial dire straits unexpectedly.

Even in this day and age of women working, it can be appealing to a woman to marry or live with a big spender. Overseas holidays, designer clothes, the latest gadgets and fine dining are all good if you can afford them and still save and invest for the future. The trouble is if your partner is spending the family silver or borrowing too much, you could fall a long way.

That's exactly what happened to one woman who sought assistance recently from Relationship Services, said Lynley Lane, clinical leader for Waikato. The woman was married with teenage children. The couple socialised a lot and bought what they wanted, including their dream lifestyle block. "He was earning a good income and the money she earned was about her."

But when the marriage broke up, they were unable to sell without being left in negative equity and her play money ended up being all she had to live on.

It can be even worse for a non-working spouse or partner who is left without warning having to pay a mortgage or rent and support the children, as can happen with death and divorce.

The level of financial unawareness among women who seek assistance from Relationship Services and other professionals is high.

"I have had women in here where their husbands have money in trusts without (the wife's) name on it or the house in his name alone," says Lane.

Financial planners see the same. "If you allow someone else to dictate all your finances, and if you are not looking at the arrangements, you can lead yourself to a lot of headaches," says Susanna Stuart of Stuart + Carlyon Financial Planners.

The advice from financial planners, lawyers and relationship experts is the same: for women to be proactive about their finances during relationships.

Lane says: "Knowledge is key. Women need to know what money is coming in, where it goes, what they contribute, how much is in the savings and knowing how to be more frugal about their spending."

The reality is women need to know, from the day they become single, how much they earn, own and owe, if they're going to survive financially, says Lane.

One of Stuart's clients, a woman in her late-50s, was caught financially by the death of her husband. The man handled all the financial dealings of the family and had set up trusts and company structures. His wife simply signed whatever she was asked to, including guarantees for her husband's business loans. "He had ratcheted up the mortgage on the house as security for his company dealings."

When he died, she was left with the entire debt, which would have died with him and the business had she not signed guarantees.

"This is a warning to all to be careful what they sign and to be aware of the consequences," says John Roberts managing director of credit reporting agency Veda Advantage. "If you have signed your name to a loan as a co-borrower or a guarantor you could end up with all the debt with devastating consequences."

In some, but not all cases, life insurance payouts will cover the mortgage and any debt. But Kiwis are woefully under-insured, says Ed Saul, partner at Pinnacle Life.

"Some people or families have no life insurance cover and others have some cover, but not enough to continue the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed," says Saul. At least 50 per cent of people are under-insured when it comes to their lives, he adds.

"I do believe there are many, many women and families out there today living with 'undue' risk in the event that their husband or partner were to die unexpectedly."

Stuart recalls a client whose husband died in his 40s. The life insurance payout covered the mortgage, but his widow was left with nothing to live on. Stuart was put in touch with the woman by her dead husband's employers, who were concerned for her financial future.

"I even had to help her go and get WINZ benefits."

Some women put their heads in the sand when a husband or partner dies or leaves the marriage because they're consumed by grief.

Lane understands why many clients recoil from applying for the Domestic Purposes Benefit, having experienced that herself after divorce. "I remember the embarrassment of lining up at the DPB office hoping no one would see me walk into that building. It had never been in my psyche to be dubbed as 'one of those'."

Even if you reach retirement age together, if one of you dies before the other (and it's usually the man), your superannuation will be cut from $25,450, to $16,542. Sixty-two-year-old Pauline Bell, who received advice from Grey Power, spent 10 years nursing her husband and, on his death, had her benefit cut and a private pension halved.

Women who don't pay attention to what is happening in the marriage can get taken for a ride, intentionally or unintentionally. One case highlighted in Consumer magazine involved a couple where minimum payments were made to her student loan and his loan was paid off. "When our marriage dissolved, the student loans were treated as individual rather than (relationship debts). The assets were divided in half, but I was left with the debt and my contributions to his debt were not taken into account."

Another common occurrence is where one party receives an inheritance. It's natural for couples to want to use that money for joint purposes such as paying off the mortgage. If, however, they split and his parents are still alive, the partner who received the inheritance has lost half of it, while the other partner still stands to receive a full inheritance when his or her parents die.

"Sometimes it can be difficult to predict just how galling it would be if, following a separation, a spouse walked out with half of your family inheritance," says family law specialist Vivienne Crawshaw, who wrote Untying the Knot - What you need to know in a family break-up.

Unless parents are careful, they could be handing their child's future ex a Lotto-type hand-out. Crawshaw said if a break-up occurred soon after an inheritance was received, the Family Court could decide there would be serious injustice if the home were shared. But it costs money to fight this type of battle in court.