I asked a fairly personal (but pertinent, of course) question on social media recently – do you feel guilty for your finances as a stepmother?
I wanted to ascertain whether stepmothers feel responsible for the finances of the other household.
It’s a heavily loaded question. I designed it around the scenario that stepmothers whose partners do not share at least 50% custody are so often slapped in the face with; the other family considers themselves (rightly or wrongly) to be “without”, and they are clamouring for more.
I received a whole range of responses from women in different situations, and it is a far from straightforward subject. The issues raised went beyond that of guilt, and they absolutely need exploring further.
This article is a broad look at some of the financial issues and feelings facing stepfamilies. I’ve included a Resources section at the bottom – take a look because there is some really great, straightforward advice in the places I’ve linked to.
I’m going to be taking a deeper look at some of these issues over the coming months – do subscribe for blog updates if any of these ring true for you!
Some Stepmothers Seem to Sacrifice Much More Than They Should
One woman’s children went without the essentials they needed for school in order continue to support the other household. Another was worried about they money they were spending above and beyond the maintenance they were providing – sacrificing her own parenting style in order to cover the additional “essentials” that the other household demanded (plastic toys, cosmetics which she didn’t consider age appropriate).
It seems mad that one family should have to pay beyond their means, but so often the non-custody parent seems to find themselves in a hostage situation when it comes to money.
How Does This Happen?
It is still the case that in the majority, the fathers are the non-custody parent. They’re also very often (not always, but often) the breadwinner – usually because the mother has taken maternity leave and reduced paid working hours to care for the child[ren].
(On a side note, there are hard stats for the reasons behind the gender pay gap, which does still exist despite the mantra that “women have equal opportunities now”. If you need any further persuasion to read the book I often refer to in this blog, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, read this.)
This means that:
- the father is usually expected to pay child maintenance; and
- this maintenance is more than, were the situation reversed, the mother would have been expected to pay due to her proportionately lower income. This means that any money paid to her is arguably assisting with her standard of living at the same time.
In the UK, formal child maintenance is calculated as a proportion of income.
However, there’s an emphasis on parents coming to informal arrangements, with the idea being that it’s cheaper for the parents (absolutely not a universal truth), and may result in fewer disputes down the line. Parents are free to agree on a sum between themselves, and if any payments are missed the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) does not have the authority to enforce the agreement. Any disputes are to be dealt with between the parties by themselves.
When Does the CMS Get Involved?
The CMS will get involved if either party requests, and it will look at the paying parent’s tax returns to work out their income. It does not consider back-dated sums, but instead calculates what the paying parent should pay from the date the CMS first contacts them.
It’s a “future forward” institution, rather than a “you shouldn’t have done that” institution.
It is worth bearing in mind that it will look at forms of income beyond your standard pay – interest on investments, for example, and it can sometimes uncover financial truths that the paying parent had otherwise managed to keep private. If your family’s finances are complicated, and your partner is being pursued, please please seek legal advice. I cannot stress that enough.
Is There a Downside To The CMS Not Getting Involved?
Actually, from the perspective of the paying parent, yes it seems so.
If a paying parent is worried about losing access to their children, they might end up paying much more than they would otherwise have to in order to keep their ex partner happy. Without the backing of the CMS calculations, some people find themselves at the mercy of the other parent’s demands, and this has the potential to cause their new family financial hardship.
Guilt Makes Us Make Crazy Financial Decisions
So let’s take the focus back to you.
Guilt is a powerful driver if you’re worried about coming across as the evil stepmother; you don’t want to seem miserly by refusing to contribute to your stepchildren’s expenses (a double bass and a tuba because they’re going to shake your walls down if it kills them. A second hamster because the first is mangey and a bit weird). Even more so if you have your own kids to worry about; they’re already showing a penchant for fencing, or roller derby, and you don’t want the children to be treated differently.
Whatever Your Circumstances, You Work Hard For What You Have
You, dear stepmother, are entitled to feel proud of what you have achieved.
The scrutiny that comes with being a stepparent inevitably extends to how they present themselves, and if you appear to have means this can spark some unwelcome comments from the other family.
A new stepmother’s very existence has been known, in some cases, to be the driver behind requests for more money from their partner’s ex.
I would hazard a brave guess that you didn’t achieve what you have with the intention of supporting a family which you didn’t help to create. Moreover, these issues predate you and you may not have had any warning, before you made a commitment, about the extent of the financial strife. This is why The Stepmom’s Club recommends that stepmothers read the divorce documentation before they light the fuse for lift-off.
In the UK, this means paying particular attention to any legally binding Consent Orders, detailing the custody and child maintenance arrangements.
It’s a difficult one, because there’s a fine line between the sanctity of privacy and the “trust but verify” hashtag I saw a stepmother using the other day.
In my (hitherto undisclosed) profession, facts are queen, and if you were a client of mine I would be telling you to make sure you have as much information available to you as possible. However, the romantic realist (if that’s not a contradiction of terms) in me knows that emotions just don’t work like that, and if you really want something it won’t matter what the facts say. You’ll be able to justify the position to yourself, and will work out how you can possibly make it work rather than how it won’t.
However you choose to go about it though, do not feel guilty or ashamed for what you have and your desire to protect it.
And whatever you do, do not feel steamrolled into forking out what you cannot afford, just to keep your stepfamily happy. They will not thank you, and that uncomfortable feeling you get by saying no will be short lived.
The Best Idea I’ve Found for Pooling Resources
There is a great article in Stepmom Magazine which you can access via their Guide to Money and Finances (not an ad – I’ve just found it useful). Shelley Ware talks about the benefits of keeping finances separate; one account each, and an account for house expenses. It means you can pool resources where it matters, but neither of you feels taken for granted.
I find that even if you agree entirely on how your money is spent and there’s never any resentment involved, it’s great for both people to have their own pot if at all possible. That way you don’t feel guilty for spending the house finances on yourself, and you each maintain a small level of independence – something which I swear blind helps to keep the magic alive.
Don’t look on it as separation, look on it as respecting each other as individuals.
I’ve linked to some useful resources at the end of this article – there are a million ways you can organise yourselves, and the best thing you can do is to arm yourself with as much money savviness as you can.
A Side Note about America
Anecdotally (I am not an expert in US law), in some American states a stepparent’s income may be taken into account where it has increased the paying parent’s standard of living to the point where they can, realistically, pay more. They may also be made financially responsible for their stepchildren where the biological parents are unable to meet their children’s basic needs.
Now far be it for me to comment on a system I do not live within, but it seems a phenomenally unfair way to put yet more responsibility on a stepparent who is, no doubt, already doing their best by their stepchildren.
The cynic in me would argue that by formally making a stepparent responsible for the children’s financial wellbeing, the authorities are able to avoid ascertaining why their parents are so destitute in the first place – because it’s no longer their problem. (Is it a way to avoid paying out benefits? I genuinely don’t know the answer, and if you do I’d love to hear it.)
It seems to me that such laws could make people think yet twice more about taking the leap into a stepfamily, which is a crying shame.
In the UK, Stepparents Are Not Expected To Contribute To Child Maintenance
This might not feel like much of a win when the stepparent’s finances are being used to make up the shortfall resulting from their partner’s child maintenance payments, but we should count ourselves lucky that we’re not subject to the same regime as some of our American cousins.
However, it’s not just financially that a stepparent might contribute. I want to take a moment to recognise the emotional and home-making labour that so many stepparents undertake on a daily basis.
One of the stepmother Instagram accounts I follow, the_strong_bonus_mom, shared a post recently about stepmothering being a 24/7, 365 days a year job; the emotion doesn’t go away when the children leave. Nor does the fact that you have a room for them in your house, or that you need to exercise brain power in planning meals or working out “what the hell do I do with them??!” when they next visit.
Take this as another reason not to feel guilty – you do so much, and your family is lucky to have you.
Financial Problems Amassed from the Previous Relationship
The D word, and it’s not Divorce.
Debt. What some people don’t realise is that if you hold a joint account with a previous partner, and that account is overdrawn, the bank is entitled to go after either one of you for 100% of the debt rather than just 50% each.
It’s not at all unheard of for an ex partner to draw down a joint account before it’s closed, pushing into the overdraft. If they don’t have the means to pay any debt back, and the other person does, it’s the person with the means to pay it back that the bank will want to go after. It seems unfair, but as far as the bank is concerned they have a right to target whoever is most likely to come through with the money.
I’ve linked a really useful podcast below for anyone suffering from debt, and unsure how to even begin dealing with it. Also see the Resources section at the bottom of this post.
If financial concerns following a divorce have resulted in your other half suffering a poor credit score, think very carefully before skipping off to open up your own joint bank account. Once you do, you become “co-scored” and their poor credit rating could have a negative impact on your own.
It can be so very difficult to talk about finances with your other half, no matter how honest and open your relationship otherwise is. It still comes with a level of taboo attached, particularly around women’s finances (we are so bad at talking about it!), and it’s a subject about which people tend to have deeply held, strong opinions.
However it’s just so important that you bite the bullet, and have these conversation if there is debt amassed from the previous relationship. It doesn’t just affect your partner anymore – it affects you too, as any money you bring to the table will be used to make up the shortfall. You also don’t want to be blind-sighted by the need to pay any debt back at short notice, so my advice to you is get as far ahead of it, in terms of understanding it, as you possibly can.
And do it now.
A word on inheritance, because this wouldn’t be a post about finances without paying it some lip service!
Unlike a stepparent’s biological children, stepchildren do not automatically benefit from a stepparent’s estate. This means that if you die without a will in place, even if you’re married to your stepchildren’s parent, your stepchildren will not receive anything from you.
UK law has become murkier in recent years, however. Dependents can now attest wills which they have been excluded from (see this interesting case from 2015). The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 is a little known but meaty little Act, which might be relied on by your stepchildren in the event that they don’t inherit from you what they feel they are entitled to.
All it takes is for the right questions to be asked in the right case. (Could it be you?)
If you’re clear on your wishes, spell them out. Find a high street law firm to help you draft your will, so that there can be no doubt as to what you meant. Honestly, it might seem like a silly expense, but the templates you can download for free online can (and do) fail to be legally binding. It’s heartbreaking for those left behind to not be able to carry out your wishes.
The same goes for your partner. You do not want to be left holding the keys to their estate (again, another article worth a read in Stepmom Magazine, “Dad’s Wife, Widowed“, talks about what happened when this all went wrong for a stepmother) and having to interpret their wishes. You will not win in that situation. No matter what you try to do and who you try to please, the evil stepmother assumption will stick to you like that lipstick smudge of shame on the pristine white collar.
There’s A Lot to Cover…
But I hope this serves as some food for thought in any case.
Whilst we all know that money “isn’t everything”, it’s definitely something, and ignoring the impact it has on your family and your own mental wellbeing does no one any favours.
More on this to come, but in the meantime subscribe for updates, drop me a line about your own money woes… follow me on the socials. As always, I love to hear from you.
- A Woman’s Worth, a series collaboration between Stylist and NatWest, has some really great articles aimed at financial empowerment of women;
- this article from the Guardian is a great read if you’re interested in growing your wealth via investment;
- Cash Chats with Andy Webb is a relevant, practical podcast, which explores advice on savings, avoiding/beating debt, and how to deal with money triggers. I’ve linked an episode under “Financial Problems Amassed from the Previous Relationship” above;
- Mr Money Jar on Instagram;
- for the US readers, check out Clever Girl Finance;
- again, out of the US but still relevant to UK listeners, I adore Bad With Money – a podcast with a feminist slant. Strictly speaking it’s more about the bigger societal issues than practical advice, but gives you context which is enormously useful and (if nothing else) interesting.