"Complex-is the word describing most step families. More children, more grandparents, more in-laws, ex-spouses who can be difficult, custody issues, financial problems-the list seems to go on and on. Often there is also emotional baggage. For example, an ex-wife who was addicted to spending, may make it hard for husband to trust his new wife with the checkbook.
But there is very good news. God loves and cares about all families-including step families. He wants them to succeed.
If the words complex and lack of trust describe the major challenges of stepfamilies, then patience, communication, and honesty describe how to overcome these problems.
Successfully merging a stepfamily is more like a marathon than a sprint. In his excellent book, The Smart Step-Family, Ron Deal says it's like cooking with a Crock-pot instead of a microwave. In other words, stepfamilies need to employ patience-time and low heat-in allowing each member of the new household to adjust to the changes. This is especially true when working through finances. For example, any parent who has been single for very long will have become accustomed to making financial decisions alone. It takes working together over time to get comfortable with making these decisions as a couple.
It is important for all couples to address their finances before and during marriage. But for stepfamily couples, the need is amplified because spouses often base their money decisions on the experience of their previous marriage. Listen carefully: Do not carry the baggage of hurts and difficult financial experiences with your former spouse into financial discussions with your new spouse. Philippians 3:13 says it this way: "But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead."
Ask each other these questions:
1. What are your financial obligations to your ex-spouse (child support, alimony, other)?
2. How likely are child support payments to increase or decrease in the future? When will they end? Are you responsible for any additional expenses, such as education, for them?
3. When one of us dies, who will receive the assets brought into our marriage? What happens to them when the surviving spouse dies or remarries? What are the financial plans for your children should you die or be unable to work?
4. What expectations do you have for me to support your family?
5. Do you have a retirement plan? If so, how much is in it? Is any part of it obligated to a former spouse?
6. Do you have any financial commitments to your parents, siblings, or other family members?
7. Was your previous spouse a poor money manager? How will we unify our finances?
8. How should we use what we receive in child support and alimony? What do we do when we don't receive scheduled child support?
9. Will we both work outside of the home? How will we handle childcare?
10. How will we handle the holidays? How do you feel about gift-giving?
Although we normally recommend that couples have just one checking account together, some stepfamilies would be wise to start with "yours," "mine," and "our" accounts.
One reason for this is security, especially for the woman. Many women who have been left destitute after their husband walked out will find it very difficult to give up the security of having something they can call their own. Their trust account needs plenty of deposits. As a new husband proves his faithfulness, her trust will be won and the finances can be completely unified.
Stepfamilies are created whenever people marry and bring a child or children from a previous relationship. What may feel like an exciting new start for a husband and wife can feel like a loss for children, who enter the stepfamily with their own wounds-and a missing parent.
Think about their challenges. They may have experienced the trauma of their parents divorce or death and the loss of love and stability. Joint custody and a new parent are bound to cause confusion. If they have to move, they will also lose friendships. They may even feel the need to compete with the new stepparent for the time and attention they had previously enjoyed from their natural parent.
Children often react to these changes by becoming jealous of the new parent. They may pit one set of parents against the other or develop an unhealthy sense of entitlement. For most couples, two issues never completely disappear in a stepfamily.
(1) If I can't make everyone happy, who comes first: my spouse or my children? (2) Do I love my children more than my mate's children?
• Your spouse must be your top priority. Divorce recovery expert, Laura Petherbridge, has discovered that men often put their children ahead of their new wives. This is a tragic error.
• Express love toward your children and your spouse's children equally. You might not have the same feelings of love for both sets of children, but you can choose to love them equitably. Hold them to the same expectations, discipline each evenhandedly, and distribute financial resources fairly.
• Never poison the children by ever speaking badly of an ex-spouse. In surveys, this is the number one request of children of divorce.
• Be a student of all the children, because each is unique and will adapt to the stepfamily differently.
• How the "other" parents handle money is an area over which you may have no control. If the ex-spouse indulges the children or uses money to "buy" affection, it is important to take a unified approach in dealing with it.
Teaching children to be money smart
You and your spouse probably have different approaches to teaching children how to handle money. For instance, you may have required your children to earn money by performing chores. Your spouse may have simply given an allowance.
In teaching children God's way of handling money and then, it is important to agree on an approach. Remember the "Crock-pot." Children's habits do not change easily, and you will need to be patient when you teach them money management.
If your children complain about changes in how money is handled, sympathize with their frustration. Explain that you understand why they're upset ("It's another change you didn't ask for and I'd be upset, too, if I were you."). Then share what you've learned about managing money from God's point of view.
Financial Obligations and the Ex-Spouse
If you are receiving child support, remember that this money is legally for the benefit of the child and should be used for no other purpose. And when drafting your spending plan, be aware that 59 percent of custodial mothers with child support agreements do not receive the payments due (U.S. Census Bureau).
If you pay child support, 1 Timothy 5:8 expresses your responsibility, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." Make every effort to be faithful with your child support payments even if your former spouse does not use them wisely.
Those who pay or receive child support often feel a lack of control over their ex-spouse. You can't force them to pay on time. You can't dictate that they use the money wisely. Learn to choose your ex-spouse conflicts very carefully. Trying to control their spending likely damages your relationship and isn't worth it. Trust God with what you can't control.
Who is responsible for the children's health insurance? And what do you do if the other parent does not fulfill his or her obligation? A backup plan is essential.
Future demands or requests
It is not uncommon for an ex-spouse to petition the courts for a change in the support agreement. This can be very difficult for a stepfamily. Though it may never happen, it is smart to discuss this possibility and formulate a plan in case it occurs.
Checklist of things that might need changing
Insurance. You may need to change the beneficiaries of your life insurance policies. It is also wise to review homeowners, auto, and disability coverage to determine if anything needs to be adjusted. Confirm that everyone in the family has adequate health insurance.
Titles. Car titles and deeds to a home and other property may need to be changed.
Wills. Wills should be changed to reflect your current situation.
Debt. A divorce agreement will not eliminate liabilities on debts. If you are liable along with your former spouse for the mortgage or a credit card, you will remain liable as long as the debt exists. Your credit will be damaged by late payments and the lender may hold you responsible if your ex-spouse stops making the payments. It is essential that you try to remove yourself from these joint debts. This may be as simple as closing a credit card account or as complex as refinancing a mortgage.
Practical Financial Issues for Step Families
Social Security. If you were married at least ten years and your former spouse has not-remarried, he or she may be entitled to a portion of your Social Security benefits. However, when your current spouse becomes eligible, he or she is also entitled to the spousal share. Social Security pays the spousal share to each and does not divide the share between the two.
Pensions. A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) may include a court-ordered assignment of benefits to a former spouse of a portion of the benefits scheduled to be received from a pension.
Joint tax returns. Should the IRS audit a past tax return of yours, both you and your former spouse remain equally responsible for any past errors or fraudulent returns.
Refunds. The IRS can withhold a portion of a refund to cover unpaid child support. Standard refund checks are also issued jointly, requiring both signatures.
A shared covenant. I don't recommend that couples execute a prenuptial agreement based on the possibility of divorce, because this sows seeds of deep mistrust even before the marriage. I am in favor, however, of what author Greg Pettys calls a Shared Covenant for couples whose marriage will form a stepfamily. This is a written agreement designed to clarify emotionally charged issues that may become obstacles to their maintaining a close relationship.
For example, they should agree on how the children will receive an inheritance. If one spouse dies, will the children receive anything? If the survivor then re-marries, how does this impact what the children will receive from their parent's estate?
A Shared Covenant promotes open communication, clarifies expectations and can draw a couple closer together. It protects a marriage by agreeing on a plan for future events.