Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
My wife and I (we’re both women) are dissolving our living situation, and in the long term, we may dissolve our marriage. Her racist, abusive mom is too ill to live independently, but refuses a nursing home, and wants us to move in and care for her. This woman has called me and our teenage son racial slurs and has been homophobic and wretched. We fought and compromised by planning to live separately: My wife will live with her mom in her mom’s house and manage her aides and care, while our son and I will downsize to a smaller apartment.
This is brokered peace at best, and I recognize that even though I love my wife very very much, this might end our marriage. We both work full time, earning about the same. We have a teenage son, a car loan, student loans, and some minor credit card debt. What can I do to keep our current situation financially fair, while still protecting/preparing myself for a potential divorce?
—This Might Be the End
Dear This Might Be the End,
I’m sorry you’re going through this; there’s no easy way to deal with situations like this. I assume you have some way of working out who is responsible for what right now, and if you were to divorce tomorrow, the courts would likely require you to maintain the status quo as much as possible over the course of the process because you have a teenage son. That means no big changes to who pays for what, if you’ve already begun proceedings.
I assume your wife is aware that the marriage might not last as well, and you both want to protect your son, so I think it’s worth having a conversation now about what you think is fair and isn’t about the way you’re currently handling expenses. It also wouldn’t hurt to see a financial planner so that you both have a sense of what your long-term expenses might be and what your options are with regard to your existing debt.
Anything you jointly own gets split up is a matter of state law. If you live in an “equitable distribution” state, assets would be divided according to your individual claims on the property. If you’re in a “community property” state, your marital assets would be split between you. Student loan debt is trickier because who owns what is a matter of when the loans were taken out (before or during the marriage), whether they were jointly consolidated, and so on. But, generally speaking, student loan debt would be the responsibility of the person who took out the loans.
Knowing all of this, you should be able to estimate what your financial situation would look like post-divorce, and that should help you prepare for the possibility.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My mother has a boundaries problem. I am in my mid-20s and independence means a lot to me, but it feels like she’s stripping me of my agency. Here are some examples of ways she has trampled my boundary in the past seven days alone. My apartment’s leasing office kept sending us incorrect versions of the lease we needed to renew. She asked me if she could call them. I clearly said, “No, I can do this.” She called anyway and only told me afterward (and this is not the first time she’s done this). Mom asked if she could send me money for a trip I was taking (which I could entirely pay for on my own), I said no, and we went back and forth for about 20 minutes. I finally agreed to a small amount even though I really value my financial independence. She then transferred an even larger amount into my bank account after looking at the balance in my checking account and saying it wasn’t enough. She texts me five to six times a day while I am at work asking how I am and if I say something like “busy” or “good” she gets sad.
I have tried to talk to her about boundaries. She always justifies her intervention because I am in a competitive and intense graduate program and have an anxiety disorder, and she only works a few hours a day, so I must need her help to keep my anxiety down. But this is making me more stressed! I only see her once every few months now because I feel like if I give her an inch, she’ll take a mile. Any tips on a better script for establishing boundaries?
—Open Borders But Firm Boundaries
Dear Open Borders,
Boundaries only work if you enforce them. That means being truly financially independent in your case. There’s no reason your mother has to be on your lease, and you agreed that she could send you money, so she did, just more than you asked for. If you want your mom out of your financial affairs, you need to demonstrate that by being fully independent and removing her access to things like your checking account. You’re an adult now and there’s no reason for your her to have that kind of visibility into your finances, unless that’s what you specifically want. It sounds like you don’t, so it’s up to you to remove the mechanisms for your mom to interfere.
Have another conversation with her, reiterate that being financially independent is important to you, and tell her what you’re going to do. Tell her you love her and appreciate her concern, but you don’t want to discuss money with her because you are capable of managing your affairs yourself and her attempts to help are only increasing your anxiety, which you know is not her intention. Tell her not to text you during work hours unless it’s an emergency, and if she does anyway, don’t reinforce this behavior by texting back. Wait until work is over to respond.
It’s up to you to determine how much your mom can and cannot intervene and there are several ways to do that. You have agency; you just have to use it!
Dear Pay Dirt,
I have a strange question as it applies to a future endeavor. I am a mother of six—four are my stepkids (of those, three are adults on their own) and two are biological. I am looking into starting a tree nursery. My husband and I very much want to start a family farm someday and I am using this time to study soil and techniques, and hope to use my upstart saplings as a springboard to eventually apply for a first-time farmer loan for some land that I can use to expand the nursery, feed our kids, and have a legacy to pass.
We’d like to place the farm and family home into a trust for the children, which I agree with. My youngest stepson is 14 with Down Syndrome, and while he’s extra work that’s not a big problem. I’d love eventually, if we are successful, to be able to build him his own smaller house on the property so we can be close by but still grant him some independence when he’s an adult. But, while I want him to have a forever home and enough set aside to care for him if we die or become infirmed, my husband’s idea is to leave the farm and main family home in his care with his older sister as trust executor. Essentially, he’s in charge of the daily chores and goings-on of the farm, and the financial end is handled by his sister.
I’ve told his father that this makes me uncomfortable—farming is hard enough for people with all their faculties. There are split decisions, amendments, and timing to worry about among other things. His sister, an adult out of the home already and in another state, has no experience with growing anything. And what’s more is, his personality type abhors labor or instruction (loves to do things out of order or not at all). Neither of which are compatible with taking over any business but especially one where hard work is a must.
My two biological sons—and this isn’t just preference—are industrious. The elder son takes up heavy chore mantles, works hard, doesn’t complain much, and has to be basically the big brother of my stepson even though he’s younger. They’re young but in all reality, once this business has legs, much will be built on their backs as well. I don’t fault him for thinking so, everyone wants to believe the best of their children, but my husband is sure that there’s a hidden potential in my stepson and I’m not giving him a fair chance. I believe there is too, just not here, in this field, and I have to be practical. I don’t want to build a business that’s supposed to care for a person to place it in their care and watch it go down the drain because they can’t care for it back. And it may be my one chance to leave any legacy to my sons.
I don’t want to exclude any of the kids, I look at them all as my own, but I fear it leaves very little to all of them, especially if it fails when I’m gone or retired. My husband’s reassurances that an elder sibling will be in charge of finances aren’t helping me much. What do I do?
—Trying to Plant Boundaries
Dear Trying to Plant Boundaries,
I’m generally not in favor of people making occupational decisions for their children. So, I’d start by asking whether this is something your stepson would even want and whether his sister has any idea that in your husband’s plans, she is expected to be his caretaker and manage a farm. (Not everyone wants a farm!) You don’t even know that your kids are going to want to be a part of one after you’re gone or retired. You need to build what you want for yourself but not assume that farming is a legacy your leave to your sons. They may have other plans. You say, of your children, “in all reality once this business has legs much will be built on their backs as well.” Are they aware of this? Do they want that?
With regard to the question of your stepson’s capabilities, I think it’s important to give him the support he needs to live as independently as he wants to, but I agree with you that your husband shouldn’t assume that he is capable of managing a farm. Even if your stepson did not have Down Syndrome, and was absolutely sure he wanted to be a farmer, I’m not sure either of you would be able to make that kind of evaluation when he’s only 14. You should build the farm for yourself, and hold off on planning the future careers of any of your children. The farm is about your aspirations, not theirs, and even if you leave it to them, they may choose to sell it and take a different direction in life.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My elderly mother and my son were living together in a condo that I own. My son left the condo and now my mother is paying rent on her own. Since she is on a fixed income, she can only pay one-third of the amount I would get if I were renting it. She is 82. When I calculate the costs of her living there to me—I lose a small amount each month.
I want to purchase a beach condo to retire in. I cannot do this and be financially sound without selling the condo and asking her to move into public housing—which she worries over (she hates high-rises). Do you think it is selfish of me to ask her to move into public housing? I love my mom, but I do not think it is fair to have to house her and lose upwards of $1,000 a month and my retirement dream over it—especially considering that she is unsteady on her feet, lonely, and does not drive. The condo also has a flight of stairs to her bedroom. With public housing, she would have the security I cannot provide (health, access to folks, and food regularly).
I have proposed that my brother cover the rest of the rent that my son was paying. He was quite offended as he feels that I am breaking even on my expenses. I explained I had a loss of income and that I would like to think about investing in my future retirement. He instead suggested we each pay half on a fall-precaution remote service for her in case she falls. What is right? I am afraid of being a bad daughter, but do not feel I should have to go without, especially when safer options are available to her. Help!
—Mother May I
Dear Mother May I,
There’s no right answer here, only opportunities for a compromise that might satisfy both of your requirements. Your mother dislikes high-rises and is probably accustomed to her condo and doesn’t want to leave it, but you can’t indefinitely lose money on it at some cost to yourself. If you choose to move her into public housing, giving her as much agency as possible in deciding where to live may ease the transition. She may even qualify for section 8 housing assistance in that scenario, which would leave her with more income to spend.
I think you’re right to prioritize your mother’s safety and public housing may be the way to go there, but it wouldn’t hurt to also look into other kinds of senior-friendly rental options, including options like home-sharing. If your mother’s primary anxiety about public housing is that she doesn’t want to be in a high-rise, there may be other options for her, including potentially, getting a roommate through a program that matches seniors with people who can help them maintain independence and cover the rent. Regardless, it’s useful to talk to your mother about her specific concerns so that you can better find a compromise that allows you to save without compromising her safety and well-being.
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