Like many women who become stepmoms, I enjoyed a full, independent life before I married my husband, Craig. I worked hard to pay off my six figures in law school debt, built a successful career and spent years contributing to what became sizable retirement investments.
I was excited to partner with my husband and his four children in every way. As we planned our wedding, Craig and I talked about what his child custody arrangement would mean for us and where we would live to best accommodate this new reality. We reviewed our accounts and the debts we each brought to the marriage, set up joint accounts and put our home and rental property in both of our names.
Although I made more, Craig had been in the military for almost 30 years, and had a good salary with amazing benefits. But he was still working to replenish his savings and credit score after his divorce had done a number on both. We didn't discuss in detail what this new family dynamic would mean for my assets and how to preserve what I had worked so hard to build.
Then, a few years in, we went through a sticky discovery process when he and his former spouse were renegotiating child support. I realized that, while this was just one unanticipated speed bump, we should have discussed our approach to money in greater detail.
Stepparents are not responsible for the child support their partners pay. But if your accounts and money are commingled, and your spouse needs to produce documentation of their assets, yours might get wrapped into that process. If you're like me, you would rather keep this financial business private, so we decided to begin the time-consuming process of unwinding our joint bank account and separating the rest of our assets.
With more than 50% of US families being remarried or recoupled, millions of people are struggling to understand how to tackle financial issues just like this in their stepfamilies, and there are few resources to help them. Here are three things we wish we had known.
Get the hard conversations out of the way early
Before you settle down, have some deeper discussions about your feelings and ideas around money. What does money mean to each of you? What are your priorities? Talk about your retirement plans and discuss what you want to happen to your assets after you're gone.
Then talk about how you'll handle expenses related to the kids and what you each view as your responsibilities. Who will pay for piano lessons or new soccer cleats? What about prom dresses and winter coats? How will you handle college expenses?
Remember, it's not a question of what you're obligated to do, but rather what you want to do. You don't have a legal mandate to pay for anything for your new stepchildren, but you'll probably want to contribute where you can as you become a part of their lives.
These questions can be complicated in a blended family. And no amount of preparation will solve every situation that comes up. The more you work through early on, the better prepared you'll be for whatever comes your way.
Keep your bank accounts and assets separate
The easiest way to make sure both you and your partner's assets are protected is to keep separate accounts. You can still work together for your household by setting up one joint account that you use for expenses.
This may seem unromantic or unnatural. It did to us at first. But it's the easiest way to protect both your loved ones and yourself. And with clear communication and some ground rules, you can do it in a way that maintains the same levels of transparency and trust as if you had merged everything.
Check in regularly
As important as it is to set up financial ground rules early, it's just as important to have regular financial check-ins with your partner. These check-ins don't have to be involved or difficult.
Try to understand one another's point of view. Money conversations can be especially complicated in second marriages, since both partners are bringing past experiences into the union.
For example, if your spouse's ex racked up secret credit card debt, you may be caught in your partner's "trust hangover." Remember that you're on the same team; you are here together because you fell in love and trust each other, through better and worse.
It's never too late to deal with the "richer or poorer" part of your vows. Pay attention to them early and often, and you'll set yourself up to "love and cherish" one another in a deeper, more harmonious way.