When Money is at the Root of Marriage and Family Squabbles

Disagreements over money can tear marriages and families apart. In fact, unresolved money conflicts remains the number one for divorce. But it doesn’t have to be that way. More often than not, the solution can be found in this single word directive: communicate!

Dear Mary: My husband always insists on balancing our joint checkbook, and I recently found out why. The last statement came in while he was away on business so I decided to deal with it. Well, I was astonished to see a check to his parents for $250. I went through a couple prior statements and found the same thing. I figured out he’s been doing this ever since his parents retired last year. Besides being shocked, I was hurt. We’re not exactly rolling in dough. We have three kids and a hefty mortgage, but I wouldn’t have outright refused to help my in-laws. How should I broach the subject with him? And shouldn’t I be acknowledged for my contribution to this little retirement fund? After all, I work too! Christina

Dear Christina: Skimming money is a real problem for any partnership, especially a marriage. But money problems in a marriage are rarely only about the money. There’s usually an underlying issue. If he’d asked, I would have told him that as noble as his intentions might be, his commitment to you and to his marriage trumps his relationship with his parents. It’s wrong to do this behind your back. 

But since you wrote, I’m going to ask you why he felt he had to sneak around to do this? There was a time he told you everything. But now he knew you’d hit the roof if he brought it up. I suggest that you go to him as his loving wife and partner, not a raging foe. Simply tell him how hurt you are that he couldn’t talk to you about this. Assure him that you willing to talk now. Let him know that if you are going to enjoy financial harmony in your marriage, everything has to be on the table–his spending and yours too. Talk it out. I’m sure you can negotiate a compromise you can both live with.

I can’t help but point out that a man who cares this much for his aging parents has to be a pretty good guy.

Dear Mary: My sister and her husband have really been struggling to make ends meet. To help them out, my parents are converting their home into a two-family residence. Mom and Dad are moving into the upstairs apartment and letting Debbie, Steven and their two kids take over the main part of the house. I’m glad Mom and Dad can help Debbie’s family out, but both my brother and I are confused about what this means as far as our inheritance goes. It was always assumed the house would be split three ways, but will this situation change anything? Debbie assures us there’s nothing to worry about. Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on this situation for us. Pam

Dear Pam: If you are concerned that by moving in with your folks Debbie and Steven might somehow claim ownership of the house, relax. Your parents would have to sign a specific legal document for that to happen. Their Will or Living Trust (Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker Plus works with both PC and Mac and includes a free one-year subscription to Nolo’s Online Living Trust), determines what happens to their assets upon their deaths.

Let’s say that one day, as you assume, the three of you inherit this property. If sis and hubby are still living there, she wears two hats: Debbie remains a co-tenant with Steven and she becomes a co-owner with you and your brother. That’s when the sparks could fly. Do the three owners sell the property? Raise the rent? Kick out the occupants? Family money squabbles can get ugly.

I suggest you bring up the subject with your folks now. Encourage them to have an attorney review their Will or Living Trust and also create a simple occupancy agreement for Debbie and Steven that reflects your parents’ long-term wishes for their estate and family. By the way, improving the property will undoubtedly increase its market value. That sounds like a good deal for everyone.


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    RE LW1: This is why I think having yours, mine, and ours accounts are a good idea for couples. The ours is for joint things and should be taken care of first. The others can be spent by the owners however they want with no recriminations.

  • cherie

    I disagree that someone who thinks so much of his aging parents MUST be a good guy. My in laws are the type of people everyone thinks are just great, but they are actually truly awful deep down and it’s taken my husband many years of therapy to not immediately respond in a knee jerk way and do WHATEVER it takes to avoid the pain of conflict with them. There are a lot of reason’s Christina’s husband might want to help – and it might be that they’re lovely people in need – but at the same time why would he hide that from his wife? The secrecy suggests he knows there’s something not really right about his choice there. Christina I think if he were such a great guy he wouldn’t lie to his wife either – stand up for your self – not as a screeching banshee but as a woman who deserves better treatment.

    As for Pam, be prepared for your parents to tell you they want to take care of the one they’re taking care of now, and that they’re getting the house, because you’re fine. I’m a lawyer, I see it all. the. time. It’s not the way to create family harmony once they’re gone, but it’s their house and their choice