Welcome to Ask the Bills, in which Helaine Olen answers readers’ questions about their most nagging personal finance and financial etiquette dilemmas. Seeking advice on a money issue? Email email@example.com.
My wife and I have been together eight years and now have two kids in a small city apartment. We met with a financial planner recently to talk about buying a condo, and the financial planner pressed us to save more for retirement before we focus on a down payment. (We save 3 percent of our income now; the planner wants us to aim for 7 percent.) But here’s the thing: My wife’s dad is a multimillionaire who’s told her more than once that he’s set up a trust in her name and that she’ll be “very well off” in the future. Their family isn’t big on transparency, so she doesn’t know anything beyond that and doesn’t want to factor that future windfall into our current financial plan. I get that circumstances can change, but it also feels absurd to tighten our belts even more and pretend like this isn’t going to happen. Yes, we could squirrel away a few thousand more for retirement if we delay homeownership, but we are also bursting at the seams in our current place, and we both have a crazy long commute to work. I think we should buy a place now; she thinks we should plan for retirement as if we have to go it alone. Asking her dad for more information is a total no-go, by the way. So who is crazy?
We often use money to measure our worth in society. Your wife no doubt wants to prove she can do it on her own, and if that means a squashed apartment or a long commute, so be it. And it sounds like her father fears that if she knows just how much he’s put aside for her, it could dampen her motivation to work or maintain a responsible lifestyle. But he clearly doesn’t want her to worry too much! Otherwise, he’d never have mentioned the trust. What a muddle! You, who simply lucked into marrying into this rumored fortune, see things differently. You want more space and to spend less time going back and forth, and who could blame you? From your perspective, we’re talking about found money, and found money generally doesn’t trigger psychological baggage.
You face one big problem: It’s not your cash. It will one day be your wife’s. And if you think that fact isn’t impacting the power dynamics of your relationship, you’re wrong. That rule also applies to your planner, who is doing you and your spouse no favors. There is absolutely no definitive advice she can give about your family’s need for retirement savings without having some idea of the size of the trust fund. It could be a huge amount. It could be teensy. And did the planner mention that not all marriages last forever, and you might need retirement savings one day more than your wife does? If she doesn’t say all that, she’s either incompetent or favoring your wife’s wishes over yours because she thinks your wife could one day be a large source of funds (and fees).
By refusing to acknowledge that the money really exists, your wife is prioritizing her wants over the needs of the rest of the family. It doesn’t seem that way, because she isn’t living extravagantly—anything but! But sometimes self-denial is its own form of power, as you are no doubt noticing, crammed into that piddly apartment. Since the money is hers and not yours, she has the power to do that, and you can’t do much to stop it—unless you call her out on it. Yes, it’s true that you don’t know what the future could bring, but come on. You aren’t, after all, suggesting you quit your jobs and take a ’round-the-world trip because your wife might inherit a lot of money one day. You’re suggesting you buy a more comfortable and convenient home. There is nothing wrong with that. While real estate is generally not as lucrative an investment as stocks, it is still an investment, and one many people want to possess. My advice? The only way to challenge the power of the golden elephant in the room is to acknowledge the impact of its presence. Tell your wife you need a larger living space that’s closer to work and that you’re willing to rent this space or buy it, but that your current arrangement is not acceptable in the long term. Then the two of you should make a joint decision and determine as a couple what would be best for your family. And whatever you do, get a new financial planner—perhaps one who, instead of simply going along with your wife, will instead offer suggestions on how to approach her father so she can get a real handle on her financial life.
I have three half-siblings, one of whom I’ve never met. One half-brother is a self-made millionaire (no kids), the other makes a decent living (also no kids), and then there’s my half-sister—more on her in a second. I work freelance and also have no kids. My father, who is decently well-off, intends to have us divide his estate equally. That includes both his money and a 19th-century home, which still has a mortgage and needs some repairs. I see nothing but nightmares ahead, since one of the brothers has long refused to do anything with me but gets along well with the other brother, who is cordial but opaque when we speak. The half-sister? We have no idea where she is or how to find her. The executor is an old family friend. What, if anything, given these messy relationships, can I even try to do to forestall a horrific settling of the estate when the time comes? I doubt my father would even entertain changing his will to make this less potentially contentious, so that’s off the table. He has this pipe dream we’ll all sing “Kumbaya” and get along. I can’t imagine a civil and productive conversation with the two half-brothers. We all live in different cities and different countries.
There is a false and dangerous idea that we somehow have the power to guarantee—when the day comes that we lose a parent or other beloved relative—that the divvying up of money and possessions won’t lead to familial strife. This is a myth. As I’ve written before, there is a barely a person over the age of 40 who hasn’t at least once experienced a family contretemps following the death of a family member. All too often, the settling of the estate becomes one last opportunity to determine whom mom or dad loved the most. And it sounds like, from the letter you wrote, your family has experienced its share of dysfunctional turmoil, leaving you and your brothers (and maybe your MIA sister) primed for a fight over your father’s money, possessions, and mementos after he passes. On the plus side, your father appears to have appointed a neutral executor, one whom it sounds like can be relied on to ensure a fair division of the financial assets. And it will be fair. Leaving equal portions to all four children, regardless of their financial status, whether they have children or not, or their relationship with him or each other, is just about the fairest and wisest thing he can do, especially in these circumstances. So no matter what kind of father he was, he did get this one thing right. There is no need to speak to him about the will—not that you could do much about it even if it was a mess. It’s his money and will be as long as he is alive. As for the rest of his stuff, I suggest reminding yourself that possessions are just possessions, and almost certainly not worth fighting over. If there’s something that is particularly meaningful to you, I would consider asking your dad about it when you think the moment is right. He might offer it to you or make a note in his will. But even that wouldn’t prevent a fight if it subsequently turns out one of your half-siblings wants that possession, too. With families, these things just happen.
Over a few years, I accrued about $20,000 in unpaid federal and state taxes in addition to about $2,000 in other debt (old bills). This all happened when I was parenting alone though a serious illness while working as an independent contractor; I couldn’t get a handle on how to set aside money for taxes. I now have no savings and no assets, and my work is low-paying. I’d like to go back to school (I never graduated from college), and my child is taking a gap year from college, but we have both accrued some college-tuition debt. My living situation is secure and my monthly expenses are low. However, I never have any extra money, and I feel trapped by my old debt. I don’t know where to turn for help paying off my taxes and other debts. How should I start—and how can I find my way back to financial health?
Kudos on your determination to make a new financial start. You can contact the Internal Revenue Service, which will likely offer you a payment plan if you can’t pay the debt in full right now. If you haven’t done this yet, it’s clear to me you could use an advocate who is on your side in the process. Liz Weston, a certified financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet, suggests hiring what’s known as a “tax controversy” attorney. They can help determine if, like most people, you should file for an “installment agreement,” in which you pay off the bill over a period of time. Alternately, the attorney might believe you’re a candidate for what’s called an “offer in compromise,” in which the IRS agrees to accept less than what’s owed in return for you paying off the remainder due on a set schedule. Contrary to the claims of those commercials you might hear on weekend radio or late-night TV, receiving an offer in compromise isn’t particularly easy. It’s reserved for people whose tax debt is not only way out of proportion to their current assets and income, and will likely remain so in the future. I would also urge you to contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and have it assist you with the process of setting up a budget, including reviewing your student-loan options and making sure the money is available to meet your IRS obligation. (They can’t help you negotiate with the IRS, alas.) Their counselors can sit down with you, and work on a plan that allows you to (hopefully) return to college while minimizing the amount of money you will need to borrow to do so. Good luck!