28/08/2012 06:32 BST

Hidden Debt: Britons Sitting On Secret Mountain Of Bills And Women Are More Likely To Owe More

Britons are sitting on a secret mountain of debt that they are keeping hidden from their partners, and women are more likely than men to owe more and keep their finances under wraps, a study has suggested.

More than one in 10 women (11%) said they hide their debts from their other half, compared with around one in seven men (15%), the Co-operative Bank's Modern Families and Households report found.

It estimated that people in relationships could be keeping as much as £41 billion hidden from their partners if its findings were projected across Britain.

hidden debt

Women are more likely than men to owe more and keep their finances under wraps

Nearly two thirds (62%) of people surveyed said they have debt in the form of credit cards, overdrafts and mortgages.

Men typically said they are £14,228 in the red, but women's debt levels were found to be markedly higher, at £22,418 on average.

The report also found that many people are also keeping their savings hidden from their loved ones, with 13% of those surveyed saying they did this and £9,517 on average being squirreled away in secret accounts.

Parents with children aged 19 and over are more likely to have saved up a stash of secret cash over the years with an average of £14,700 in accounts, compared with those with dependent children under 18 who have around £4,495.

Christina Blacklaws, director of family law at the Co-operative Legal Services, said: "Many people facing relationship breakdown may be shocked to find out that they may have responsibility for their ex-partner's debts, even if they were not aware of them, or may not have any rights to assets or property which they themselves may have invested into.

"Even if your partner dies, debts may well be passed on to you as an individual or to the estate.

"Legally speaking if a married couple decide to divorce they have to disclose all of their money and assets as part of the process to the courts, if a pre-nuptial agreement has not been agreed.

"Therefore any hidden cash should not remain secret, and there can be severe consequences should these not be made known."

She added: "Unmarried couples do not have the same rights as married couples, therefore it is important that people who are in this situation know exactly what their rights and responsibilities are."

When questioned about how they manage their financial affairs, just over a fifth of couples (21%) said they keep them completely separate and do not have any joint accounts at all.

More than a third (38%) have a joint current account and a quarter (25%) have joint savings accounts.

Younger couples are much less likely to hold joint accounts than older couples. For example, 27% of couples aged between 25 and 34 have a joint account in comparison with 48% of 55 to 64-year-olds.

Some 2,000 adults took part in the research.