Some of the most dramatic shifts in family life are occurring among older Americans. Over the past two decades, divorces have doubled for baby boomers and the number of individuals aged 50 years and older who are cohabiting has surged 85%.
So, when a reader wrote with a problem, I knew it was shared by many. After a late-life divorce, the reader met his current girlfriend. They’ve been together for eight years. Right before the pandemic began, they bought their dream house for $1.5 million, together as equal owners. But it stretched their finances—they drained accounts, stopped going out and now spend more than 50% of their total income on the new mortgage.
He had sold both of his pre-relationship houses and she took some money from her IRAs to afford the house. All told, she had contributed about one-third of the equity, he two-thirds.
What’s the problem? She has an adult child from a previous marriage living in a separate home she owns outright. I suspect she would tell me she is “saving” the property so the child can inherit it. The reader is 72—now that the worst of the pandemic seems to be over, he wants to travel more and work less, but feels constrained. They have the enviable problem of being house rich and cash poor.
I suspect an even bigger problem is perceived unfairness. He thinks he sacrificed more to buy their dream house and he wants her to extract more cash from her existing home. Only an explicit conversation about feelings and financial facts will solve their problem. Romance is similar to a business partnership as soon as you cohabitate.
The first step in managing finances is managing feelings. Partners have to ask themselves—and talk to each other—about what they want from the relationship and how pre-relationship obligations will be handled.
Children from previous relationships often present the stickiest issues. In late-life cohabitation and marriage, duties of care should be clear. The main question to ask is whether the primary financial responsibility is to your partner or to your adult children.
Creating a will and a trust can work the same as a pre- or post- nuptial. Remember that relationships with stepchildren take time; issues associated with stepfamily formation are so formidable that it can take five to seven years for families to reach equilibrium. But the financial obligations and priorities should be made clear from the outset.
I am not a fan of inheritances and favor inter-vivo transfers instead —giving while you’re living. Incorporating kids into the monthly budget and savings decisions makes the obligations transparent for everyone.
Second, as your feelings are processed, construct a budget. Most of your cash flow will be in a joint account. And separate accounts can keep each partner’s assets and liabilities distinct.