Key for stepfamilies: keeping the lines of communication open
Nowadays many people exchanging wedding vows are getting not only a spouse and three toasters, but a prefab family into the bargain. Stepfamilies are forming at the rate of 1,300 a day across the country, according to the Stepfamily Association of America, in Baltimore.Skip to next paragraph
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For these families trying to smooth the blend of his, hers, and theirs, communication is the key.
A prenuptial agreement may be in order if the couple have any significant property and assets. And the prospective bride and groom should sit down together and discuss in detail their expectations, including financial expectations, says Emily Visher, a Palo Alto, Calif., psychologist and author, with her husband, John, of ''How to Win as a Stepfamily'' (Dembner Books, New York, 196 pages, $13.95).
As to just how to pool resources, Dr. Visher says, ''There are many different ways of doing it, but the important thing is that people feel the way they're doing things is the best way for them.''
What is not a good idea is keep his and her funds completely separate, with each parent paying for his or her own children's needs, Dr. Visher says.
People going into second marriages may have a number of reasons to feel anxious about money in a way they didn't before their first marriage. But if there isn't some pooling of resources, there will be two families - often with separate standards of living - under one roof, and this situation could lead to another divorce.
''What's important is that all the children are treated somewhat fairly,'' Dr. Visher says. ''It's not that kids expect the same treatment from everyone; they know they don't feel the same way about someone they've just met as someone they've known for a long time. But if the grandparents give their own grandchildren a stereo, and the stepchildren just get a pair of socks or something, there will be some hurt feelings.''
Stepparents generally do not have a legal obligation to support stepchildren they have not adopted. But if a custodial parent remarries, the new spouse's financial resources may be taken into account if the noncustodial parent seeks modification of a court-ordered support arrangement, says Edward D. Tarlow, a lawyer with the Boston firm of Bradley, Barry & Tarlow.
And there are times when it is a good idea ''to pay up to make the problem go away,'' he adds.
For example, if Junior goes wild in the stereo shop and brings home $2,000 worth of nonreturnable sound equipment, noncustodial Dad might start yelling at ex-wife Mom and her new husband, ''What's the matter with you people? Can't you control that boy?'' Stepdad could end up digging into his pocket to help settle the bill.
Greg Confair, president of Sigma Financial Inc., in Whitehall, Pa., decries the ''punitive'' mentality of divorcing spouses, who sometimes refuse, for example, to sign a joint tax return.
If it's hard to keep the lines of communication open, he suggests contemplating the tax advantages that can be realized by doing so: