Disagreements about money can put stress on a marriage — something I learned the hard way. As my ex and I went through our divorce, though, we managed to solve our problems and come up with an amicable solution that left us both satisfied, focusing on the wellbeing of our son and giving us both a solid new start.
However, even with custody and child support figured out, as well as issues like who’d pay for my son’s travel to visit his dad and whose health insurance plan our son would be covered by, we were surprised to discover that new money issues came up. We hadn’t planned for everything, and with our son in high school, we find ourselves discussing money issues on a regular basis as we co-parent.
While it’s not always easy to have these conversations, it’s important to maintain civility and focus on what’s best for your children, said Rebecca Neale, a family attorney practicing in Massachusetts.
Start with the Divorce Settlement
“Before you even get to the divorce, hire an attorney or mediator who can anticipate the things you’re likely to need to pay for as your children grow,” Neale said. “Child support doesn’t always account for things like paying for college, going to sleepaway camp, or helping kids pay for cars.”
When possible, Neale suggests sitting down during the divorce process to get these potential expenses on paper. You might decide to split the costs 50/50. Or perhaps you split the costs proportional to each parent’s income. For instance, if one parent earns $60,000 a year while the other earns $30,000, the latter parent might pay a third of the cost of extras, and the other parent would pick up the rest of the tab. As financial situations change, having a proportional agreement, rather than a dollar amount, can help you adjust the responsibility.
Obviously, it’s hard to anticipate al future financial demands. My ex and I didn’t think about costs due to our son’s extracurricular activities, getting him a car, buying a new computer or a new smartphone. Everytime something new comes up, we have to tackle it separately, based on our past experiences and current circumstances.
Decide Your Priorities
When it comes to extras, it’s vital that you know your priorities. I wanted my son to have the chance to learn music, but my ex didn’t think that was important. Since I was pushing for piano lessons and for him to also be able to play his choice of instrument in the school band, I assumed the full cost for these activities.
Taking a similar approach can make sense if one parent is more invested in a cost than another. “Forcing your ex to pay for non-essential items they don’t feel are priorities isn’t really fair,” Neale said. “If you’re the parent with primary custody and you think something is very important, but your ex doesn’t agree, you need to be prepared to make the major financial outlay.”
Communication is Key
As with all relationships, Neale noted, good communication is key when financial issues come up in a co-parenting situation. Talk to your ex calmly and politely, and stay on task. If you’ve already agreed on cost sharing in your divorce settlement, all you may need to do in many cases is remind your ex in a timely manner of their responsibility.
Things can get stickier when you don’t have an agreement in writing, though. “As you talk about these issues, you really need to stay on target,” Neale said. “This isn’t a time to rehash old grievances or make accusations about what the other person has or hasn’t paid for in the past.”
My ex and I are fortunate to be on good terms, so our discussions about cost sharing rarely become heated. Most of the time we work out what makes sense in terms of what my ex can afford on top of the child support payment he makes each month, and whether we both agree an expense is a priority that is helpful to our son’s development.
When to Include Your Children in Financial Decisions
“When your children are young, they don’t need to hear about these discussions,” Neale said. “It’s also important that you don’t try to blame your ex for money problems you have. If you can’t afford something, explain it in an age-appropriate manner without trying to get them angry at your co-parent.”
At some point, though, your children become old enough that they may need to take part in these discussions. “This can be a time for you to help your child learn valuable lessons about money and compromise,” Neale said.
When my son asked if he could get a new smartphone, I made it clear that I wasn’t shelling out $700 on my own. We had a conference with his dad and came to a compromise. I would contribute part of the cost, and his dad would also contribute a portion, with the two of us covering half the cost. Our son would be responsible for the other half.
We wrote up a contract based how much he could pay each month until he met his obligation, and included consequences — like my ability to repossess his phone if he fell behind in payments. We’ve also made similar deals with him, requiring him to save up to purchase a monitor while my ex and I split the cost of a new computer.
These money talks have helped my son understand the value of planning ahead with money, as well as learning the value of compromise when talking about family finances.
What if You Can’t Agree?
For smaller things you can’t agree on, you might be on your own when it comes to paying. Chances are, it’s not worth it to force your ex to get involved, especially if you’re already struggling to get what’s owed you from the divorce settlement.
However, if there are big expenses vital to your children’s well-being, you might have to get a lawyer and head back to court, Neale said.
“That’s really a last resort,” she said. “Going right to a lawyer first thing is just going to cost you a lot more money. You should only make that choice if your ex just won’t help with anything and you need to force the issue to make sure it’s taken care of.”