Do you have stepchildren? If so, you’re not alone. According to the Pew Research Trust, more than four in ten Americans have at least one step-relative in their family.
Recently several of my fellow planners and I who are stepparents were talking about financial planning and step-families. One thing was clear: we love our stepchildren and can’t imagine life without them! We also agreed that getting married to someone who has children from a previous marriage requires a certain money mind shift. What should stepparents expect? How can new partners set themselves up for a harmonious and prosperous financial relationship?
Full Financial Disclosure
This can get even more complicated when there are factors such as child support, alimony, or divorce-related credit issues that accompany one or both spouses into remarriage. Accept upfront that this will add a level of complexity to the financial side of your relationship. Set some parameters during your engagement for how you will communicate about money and make financial decisions.
One of the best ways to head off financial discord is for each partner to lay all their financial cards on the table before tying the knot. Have a “full financial disclosure policy” in your relationship, which includes sharing and discussing what you own, what you owe, your credit reports, any ongoing financial obligations and any pending legal or financial problems – before you get married. To minimize conflict, fellow planner Kelley Long suggests couples set up a money meeting to explore each other’s beliefs and attitudes about money and how you’ll communicate about them when you disagree.
Managing Combined Cash Flow
Discuss in advance how you’ll pay for ongoing living expenses. An easy way to handle this is the “yours, mine and ours” method of budgeting. Make a spending plan for all your anticipated joint expenses such as housing, transportation, insurance, food, vacations, etc.
Decide how much each spouse will contribute from their income, net of retirement savings, to a joint account to cover joint expenditures. You keep what’s leftover in your individual accounts to handle as desired. If there are big disparities in income, consider having each spouse contribute proportionate to their income. .
They’re Your Kids Now Too
If only one spouse has obligations from a previous marriage, this can be a trouble spot, so work out in advance whether you agree that child support, tuition and other kid-related expenses are part of your couple budget or the biological parent’s individual budget. I favor the first approach. In my relationship, we’ve always agreed that all child-related expenses for all the children are part of our joint budget and we discuss them like any other financial decision.
Fellow planner and stepparent Tania Brown agrees. “When you marry, it’s not his or her child’s expenses. It’s both of your expenses. Although blended you are one family.”
“Consider each child in your household, regardless of who the actual parent is, as YOUR CHILD,” counsels fellow planner Paul Wannemacher. “Do all you can to treat each child equally as possible and love them as your own. Financial considerations should never, ever be the determining factor affecting that love and commitment.”
Create a New Financial Plan
Going through the financial planning process together will help you and your new spouse reach consensus on your goals and how you will work to achieve them. The financial planning process allows you to identify financial priorities such as saving for retirement, buying a new home, paying for college or helping an aging parent, as well as steps you can take to get there. Retirement and college goals often look very different after going through divorce and remarriage. A CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional can broach difficult topics, facilitate discussions and help you reach agreement on a unified vision for your financial health as a blended family.
Redo Your Estate Plan
Our director of planner operations, Linda Robertson, encourages new stepparents to update their estate plans. New spouses should update wills, beneficiaries and trusts as many concerns can be addressed through good estate planning. She proposed that couples in good health consider life insurance to even out estate planning needs between children. “A spouse who is the joint owner or primary beneficiary on most of the marital assets could set their partner up with a decent life insurance policy that is split between his/her children so they don’t feel as if the stepparent is taking everything if their parent passes away first” said Robertson. Stepparents could also consider adding stepchildren as the contingent beneficiaries on their retirement accounts.
Keep Separate Assets Separate
Whether or not you have a pre-nuptial agreement, consider keeping assets you each acquired before your marriage in separate accounts. This is particularly important where there is divorce-related conflict with an ex-spouse. For the stepparent, this helps safeguard your separate property from inadvertent loss in case of a legal dispute arising from your partner’s previous divorce