Talking About Money And Splitting the Cost of Child-Rearing After a Divorce

by Joshua Michtom

Spring is in the air, and as Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously said, it’s the time when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Truly, this is an optimistic moment: buds are bursting through frost, fans of lousy baseball teams feel improvident hope, and in all matters romantic, we cannot help but think of the good things yet to come — the spark of new attraction, the idyllic domesticity of a shared apartment, the stomach-flutteringly massive notion of getting married. So let me bring you down to earth: There’s a good chance you’re going to get divorced, by which time you may have kids, and on top of all the other heartbreaks, you may embark on a lifetime of difficult conversations about money. Let’s talk about this.

Many people in relationships find it difficult to talk about money with their partners, as this very site has ably and amply chronicled. So it is safe to say that when affection withers and we cut ties to former lovers, we’re even less inclined to hash out our monthly expenses together. But children! They do not care about how little you wish to talk with your ex about anything, let alone your ability to pay hundreds of (fucking) dollars for every (goddamn) two-week summer camp session. They will just keep eating cereal, breaking drinking glasses, losing winter gloves, and coming home with inexplicable, structurally significant damage to their backpacks. They are the terrible investment we love the most.

So how do we do it? How do we learn to talk with our exes about the marvelous, pesky little people who keep us tied together?

Remember this: There are probably few things that instill as much craziness in rational people as betrayal, money, and love of one’s own children, and all three tend to be essential elements in a divorce. I would like to say that the hard feelings of separation fade into a more amicable arrangement, but that is not always so. I can recall a friend in high school who had to postpone college because his divorced parents were feuding about money and one refused to fill out financial aid paperwork. Another friend still dreads any mention of college tuition around either of her parents, because it will get them grousing about the fight they had when she went to college, a fight that is nearly 20 years old and happened over 10 years after their divorce.

On the other hand, it can work out pretty well. When I was married, my spouse and I had a hell of a time talking about money, mostly because we didn’t have enough and couldn’t agree on a way to adjust our expenses to our incomes. (We agreed that it would be better to adjust our incomes to our expenses, but neither of us had much success at that.) Right after we separated, it was not much better: I once drove three and a half hours each way to collect a used (but really nice) range from a relative of hers who was getting a new, super-fancy one (America!); the used one was for my spouse, who had an older, crappier one, and her older, crappier one was for my new apartment, which didn’t have one at all. Everyone ended up getting what they needed (the relative disposed of old range, my ex got a newer range, and I got a range), but we ended up arguing for a month over whether she should reimburse me half of the money I spent on gas for the trip. In an email to a friend, I made my case, asking, “Am I being crazy?” He responded, “What’s crazy is that it’s $25. Let it go.”

Eventually, we did. Two years after separating, things are downright easy. We email each other whenever we incur a large child-related expense (dentist, extracurricular activity, etc.), and square up at the end of each month. Our two kids (who split their time evenly between the two houses) are on my health insurance, so she pays me half of the difference between the individual and the family plan. They go to school in her much more affluent school district, so we’ve worked out how much more she pays in property tax than I do, and I pay her a fraction of that each month (although only until next year — we figured it would be nice for the kids to stay in the same schools at first, but unfair to have me subsidize her suburban house forever). We mostly don’t bother with expenses under $100 (clothes, sneakers, school supplies for the kids) because those come up when they come up and whoever finds him or herself with a child with soles peeling off his only pair of sneakers just goes to Target and gets more sneakers.

Of course, it helps a lot that my ex and I make nearly the same amount of money (about $75,000/year), have pretty similar values (urban-suburban divide notwithstanding), and respect each other’s ability to raise children. Our divorce wasn’t very contentious, since we had mostly just debt to divide. Probably the hardest part was the shared iTunes account: We tried to keep sharing it so neither of us would have to buy all our apps over again, but then one ex-spouse saw the bill for an ebook that seemed like it might have been for the other ex-spouse’s new paramour (it wasn’t), sent off a slightly hotheaded email, and it was soon agreed that the apps weren’t worth the loss of privacy.

Hoping to get another view on this process, I talked to a friend who, like me, is divorced with two kids. Unlike me, his ex makes considerably more money than he does, his divorce and subsequent interactions were a fair sight less amicable, and he has a third child with his new partner. For perspective, I’ll add that I’ve known him and his ex for over fifteen years and both of them are great, committed parents and generally nice and thoughtful people.

How many children do you have and how old are they?

Three. Two with my ex-wife and one from my current relationship. My daughters are nine and five. My son is almost a year old.

What is your custody arrangement with your ex?

Joint custody. She’s technically the “residential custodian,” which means she gets their mail and demands tribute from me. Otherwise, we share all decision-making and split the expenses.

50–50, time-wise?

Yes, we share the time pretty much 50–50 to the minute.

How does your income compare to your ex’s income? I know this is a topic that not everyone likes to share in detail, so feel free to say as much or as little as you like; mostly I’m going for comparison here, not absolute numbers — are the two of you in the same tax bracket? Does one make twice as much as the other?

She makes about four to six times what I do right now. She’s hovering around the $80–100K range. I own a start-up business and I’d be surprised if I cleared $25K last year.

How does the fact that you have another child affect your interactions with your ex about money, if at all? You’re supporting three with a lot less money than she has for two. Does the ex acknowledge this, for better or worse? Does she take a not-my-problem attitude?

New baby is a “not my problem” attitude from her regarding money. She’s fairly supportive about him when it comes to fostering a strong older sister vibe with the girls (I think it would be hard for her not to since she would be fighting their excitement and would appear pretty villainous. Plus she’s not like a bad person in general).

Do you have any set rules for how you divide expenses? Some things, like tuition and medical bills, must logically be split down the middle (tell me if I’m wrong on that). But what about other stuff? Clothes and shoes? Special, more expensive presents? Birthday party expenses? Extracurricular activities that only take place at one parent’s house?

Everything is supposed to be split 50/50. On occasions we disagree about the necessity of an expense and the parent who wants it pays for it or it doesn’t happen.

Have you ever had disagreements stemming from optional expenses? I haven’t personally run into this, but I can imagine a situation where one parent thinks private violin lessons are absolutely necessary and the other parent thinks not spending an extra $100 a month (or whatever) is absolutely necessary. (My ex and I will probably run into this when our kids are college age, by which time parents will actually have to indenture themselves for a term of years to pay for their kids’ schooling.)

Yes we have disagreements all the time. Summer camp has been the biggest and most consistently contested expense. I’m usually for spending less money and she is usually for spending more.

How does that play out? Do you feel like you’re in favor of spending less money mostly because you have less, or just based on some more abstract principle (I, for example, am a firm believer in teaching kids the value of the resourcefulness born of mild privation)?

Its a little bit of both. I want to spend less money because we don’t have it (me less than her, but she’s quick to rationalize living beyond her means if its “for the girls”). I’m with you in the abstract principle that a little deprivation never hurt anyone. I think its important that the girls (and my son) have opportunities for “enrichment” activities but I also want them to understand that you can’t have everything all the time.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with just having some free time to hang in the park with their grandma or friends where their mom thinks that every day should be scheduled or else the girls might miss out on an opportunity. We talk about this stuff (bigger picture parenting philosophies) from time to time, but we don’t really make much headway on it. Recently, we’ve had some better conversations and perhaps it a sign that we are getting beyond the initial “I just disagree because” knee-jerk phase of being divorced.

Is she understanding about the fact that things that are easily within reach for her might be a struggle for you? Is it even something that is out in the open in your discussions about kid expenses? Do you ever feel like there’s pressure from her for you to bag the start-up and just do a straight job with better pay? Or if not direct pressure, does the imbalance play out in the tenor of your interactions with her surrounding kid expenses?

With regards to money, she’s cutting me a little slack this year for the new business (which is like having a baby, too) but I have to pay her back over the next couple of years. This is after she flexed her muscle and put me through the child support agency wringer. I think she would like for the business to succeed and she’s supportive to a point. When it starts to implicate her financial situation, she acts a lot less supportive than she talks. She’s not interested in downwardly modifying the support payment in light of it. I’m pretty sure that the court would see it differently if I wanted to play hardball, but I’m not a big fan of court-based solutions, so I’m letting her take her position for the time being and seeing how it goes.

How would you describe the level of trust between you and your ex, as far as kid-related financial matters are concerned? Here’s what I mean: my ex and I are both confident that the other person won’t deceive with regard to money, and will make good on obligations. If she tells me she came out of pocket $300 for something necessary, I don’t ask to see the bill, I just give her $150. Likewise, if an expense arises, neither of us hesitates to cover it in full, trusting that the other will reimburse. I’ve read enough decisions from divorce cases to know that this is not always the case, and I also know plenty of people who are upright and trustworthy when it comes to life, but terrible and unreliable when it comes to money (which is a way of saying that we don’t necessarily impugn a person’s character when we ask to see a receipt).

I think we trust each other enough. I actually almost never ask for money from her. She actually always asks for receipts so I guess she doesn’t trust me so much. We usually just make separate direct payments to summer camps and extracurricular programs. She recently claimed to have a change in her health care plan (her job covers the girls) and said that the cost went up for her. When I pressed her on an actual amount, she finally admitted that its still in the proposed stage and hasn’t actually happened yet. So once again, maybe there isn’t as much trust as I want to believe there is.

Sounds like maybe there’s trust insofar as parenting ability is concerned, but not so much with regard to cash. Do you think this trust (or lack thereof) has changed over time (since the divorce, obviously), or have you arrived at the status quo?

Money was the only issue in our divorce that was contested. Dividing the cash (really the debt) was very important to her in the divorce. Ultimately, everything works best if we don’t have to deal with each other about it and we each just pay for our own activities/ideas.

One last question: Any recommendations or advice about sharing child-rearing expenses after divorce? Is there anything you’re glad you did a certain way, or anything you definitely would do differently?

First off, I think that the structure of child support, particularly the courts’ presumptions, which mostly favor mothers, is terrible. They set fathers up to fail, create bitterness/acrimony between the parents, and treat all dads like deadbeats regardless of their level of participation in their childrens’ lives. There’s no way it’s fair that I’m paying child support every month plus paying living expenses for half of every week and splitting all the extracurricular expenses down the middle when I make so much less than she does.

If I had it to do over again, I would absolutely have fought for residential custodian status (because the support payment follows that) and I would have fought harder to eliminate the child support payment entirely. The fewer times that divorced parents have to exchange money, the more harmonious the co-parenting relationship can be.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.

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