Pay Dirt is Slate’s new money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here. (It’s anonymous!)
Dear Pay Dirt,
Our son suffered from a brain injury after a car accident. He is independent but hard to employ, and my husband and I have long resolved ourselves to helping him financially. He met and married “Deb” three years ago. Deb had two girls from a previous relationship. We wanted to welcome her and her girls fully into the family, but Deb had a marked preference for her own family over ours. Despite many invitations, they only visited us a handful of times and never offered for us to visit them. My husband and I were dutiful grandparents—we mailed gifts and cards on all the right occasions and asked about the girls on the phone, but we were never grandma or grandpa. Two years ago, Deb wanted to put her girls in a private school after they went through a series of serious bullying incidents and the public school did nothing. Their family couldn’t afford it, so we stepped up and paid the tuition, along with all the other assorted costs. It wasn’t cheap.
This spring, our son broke down and told us his marriage was over. Deb had been having an affair over the entire course of their relationship. She blamed our son because he was so forgetful and unfocused that of course she would look elsewhere. I’ve never seen my son so broken, and that includes in the hospital after the accident. They are getting a divorce. My husband and I agreed it wasn’t right to punish the girls and have them be pulled out midsemester. We paid the school for the spring and the summer activities; then we are done.
We told our son this, but he did not communicate it clearly to Deb. She called me up in a rage because she couldn’t reenroll her girls. I told Deb she had only herself to blame and no sane person would expect support after how she treated my son. Deb accused me of throwing her girls in the gutter; I told her if that happened it was only because their mother was a piece of trash. Deb has had the girls calling my son every other day crying and pleading about how they don’t want to lose their friends and school. Deb got a bogus restraining order against my son, who has never lifted a hand against anyone in his life, and got him exiled from the apartment we help pay for.
My son refuses to move home and let us get a lawyer for him. He is “handling” it but blames us for not supporting “his” girls. He truly loved those girls. Other family members think we need to offer to pay tuition until the divorce is complete and then dive off. I think that is worse. What should we do?
—Wanted to Be Gran but Not Grand Theft
Dear Gran but Not Grand Theft,
I don’t believe you have an ethical obligation to continue paying for the girls’ tuition, but you may want to for your son’s sake and theirs. If you choose to do so—and no grandparent is ever obligated to put their grandkids through expensive private schools, regardless of whether they’re biological grandchildren—you need an intermediary to work out some of these things. It’s clear that neither Deb nor you are really capable of putting aside your disdain for each other and you need a neutral party to help you consider what’s reasonable in the context of a divorce. And your son needs to understand that this will probably mean getting a lawyer.
If your son has trouble keeping employment due to his injury, it stands to reason that he would struggle with managing the logistics and complex emotional issues that come with an acrimonious divorce. He may want to “handle” it, but it’s not clear that he can, and he hasn’t so far. And people never want to hear that they don’t fully know their children, but I wouldn’t take it for granted that you know exactly what led to the restraining order. Here’s something you’re not going to want to hear, but you should consider: When you say your son has never laid a hand on anyone, you have no way of knowing whether that’s really true. Your sympathies naturally lie with your son, and you believe that you know what he is and isn’t capable of. That’s normal. That doesn’t mean that you’re right. Plenty of good mothers have been surprised by the actions of their sons. So you need a neutral assessment, too.
If both Deb and your son want you to continue to pay for tuition, they cannot insist that it’s done entirely on their terms. Tell them both that if they want you to keep paying, they will have to sit down and work out these other problems with actual professionals.
Dear Pay Dirt,
For about a decade, my mother has been putting some money into a special savings account. The money was supposed to be split down the middle for me and my sister, possibly for a wedding or down payment on a house. I have been thinking about getting a house in the next year or two, and my mom agreed that she had enough in her account to fund a down payment in my budget. My mother recently passed away, and we found out that the account has way less money in it than she told me. She spent almost all of the money on my sister’s wedding a year and a half ago. On top of that, my mom didn’t even think to update her will, and my sister is still entitled to half the money in the account. She didn’t even need to pay for the wedding—my brother-in-law’s family is very wealthy and offered to pay, but apparently my mother felt some kind of duty to pay for it. She’s always been weird about hiding her lack of money, but this time it actually affected me. Between her medical bills and the funeral cost, it looks like we won’t be left with much more than what’s in her account. I’m just so mad, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Do you think it would be appropriate to ask my sister to pay off the funeral cost and some of the medical bills to offset the money I never got? My sister makes more money than I do, and now she has a husband with a wealthy family. Without the down payment, I don’t have the money to buy anything in our city that isn’t practically dilapidated, and rent is going up. What do you suggest I do?
Dear Frustrated Finances,
I think it’s appropriate for you to ask your sister to pay for more of the funeral costs and medical bills, but not appropriate to expect that she owes it to you. It’s not her fault that your mother was unfair in her allocations, and whether she married into a wealthy family should be irrelevant.
Sit down with your sister and explain the costs you incurred and the disparity between what was spent for her wedding and what you were left with. Be very honest about your current financial situation. Then ask. Do not imply that your sister owes you something, and be careful about potentially displacing your anger toward your late mother (or her lack of financial planning) onto your still-very-much-here sister, who hasn’t done anything wrong in this situation. Unless you have other problems in the relationship, I’m hopeful she’ll be open to helping and evening out the tab.
If she is not, you need to adjust your plans and move on. It’s OK to be mad at your mom for setting up an expectation and then failing to deliver on it, but many families have been destroyed by siblings fighting over inheritance issues, and I doubt that your mother would have set up the account if she thought it would harm your relationship with your sister. Inheritance money is a gift, not an obligation. Your disappointment that it did not arrive is completely understandable, but your best step forward is figuring out how to make that down payment on your own.
Dear Pay Dirt,
My husband was married for 23 years and has three (adult) children with his ex-wife. She had an affair and divorced him, taking half of whatever wealth they amassed during the marriage. This left him somewhat bitter; he worked in a union job with extremely generous pay, and he did side jobs too.
We met after the divorce and married several years later. I’m certainly not his financial equal. He retired at 56, and I continue to work. The problem is that he wants everything financial to be 50/50 between us—well, sort of. I noticed that my three stimulus checks were AWOL, until I demanded the money. I paid for a cruise, household items, groceries, etc., with no offer of settling up. Meanwhile, I’ve become aware that all of his accounts, investments, and such list his children as sole beneficiaries. I understand that he saved and invested before we met and married and always intended to bequeath his wealth to his kids. However, I’m feeling uneasy about my future. If something happens to him, what if I’m unable to pay our mortgage? Why is he seemingly unconcerned about what happens to me in the event of his death? I can’t talk to him about this without being made to feel greedy. Is this sort of scenario common with people who meet in their 50s?
Dear Second Wife,
Generally speaking, these conversations should be had before you get married. How are we going to manage our money? Jointly or separately? To what extent do we commingle assets? Who’s going to pay for what? What financial obligations do we have to each other longer-term?
That ship has sailed, but you are in luck! The second-best time to talk about these things is right now, before they become emergency situations. There are ways to bring the topic up that are about practical ramifications and can make the conversation more comfortable. You both need wills, for example, and I doubt either of you wants to be surprised by what each of you decide to include. Frame it as long-term financial planning. This conversation might be easier with a financial planning professional, so you’re not the one pointing out the potential scenarios where you might be stranded because of both his spending and his orientation to sharing his own money. A neutral party can better point out the problem with your husband’s “what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is only partly yours” rationale in a way that won’t feel accusatory.
I wouldn’t say this scenario is particularly common to people who meet in their 50s, but these kinds of conflicts are common to nearly everyone who doesn’t go into a marriage with a clear idea of what their mutual financial responsibilities and preferences are. Which is a lot of people! You are not alone. But now is the time to get on the same page. You don’t want to be hashing these things out when one of you is unexpectedly a caretaker for the other, or under more urgent conditions.
Dear Pay Dirt,
I realize that this is basically just that episode of Friends where they go out to dinner for Ross’ birthday, but I have a modern twist—specifically relevant when it comes to small plates or “tapas” locales, and the social politics of being in mixed vegetarian/meat-eating company. Let’s say I’m out with a group of friends and acquaintances. These types of places generally encourage the party to order a variety of plates for all to share. Naturally, it would be easiest to simply split the bill evenly at the end of such a dining experience. But if I am the lone vegetarian at this meal, that seems unfair to me. Not only could I not eat all the dishes that were ordered, but the meat dishes are often more expensive than the vegetable ones. What’s the right way to go about this?
Dear Plant-Based Inequality,
While it may be true that small vegetarian plates are slightly less expensive than meat dishes, it doesn’t really matter if you’re ordering more vegetable plates than meat plates in terms of overall cost per diner, and there are plenty of other things (drinks, for example) that can create situations where you’re not necessarily consuming less per dollar. At any rate, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you want to whip out the calculator for when you eat with a group in a place that is specifically for shared plates. Saying yes to communal eating is saying yes to whatever the table wants to order. There will always be disparities between diners and how much pro rata tapas they’re eating and at what price. You may eat and drink more than some of your fellow diners, and they may be actually subsidizing you!
The sheer impracticality of calculating exactly what everyone is responsible for is a good reason to let it slide, but if it bothers you, think about suggesting a non-tapas restaurant for group dinners, where you can order and be responsible for your own check. You could also ask for a separate check for what you personally order at a tapas place, and you’ll probably be accommodated, but make sure you make it clear before the ordering starts that you plan to do that and know that it’s unusual. But the better etiquette is to go along with the communal nature of it. There are some people who won’t eat what you order, either, and I don’t think you’d want the guy who ordered gambas al ajillo arguing that he doesn’t want to pay for your truffled patatas bravas because he’s “not doing carbs this month.”
More Pay Dirt
I am a single mom to a 4-year-old boy, and while we aren’t exactly struggling, finances are always pretty tight. We live in a city with a very high cost of living, and rent especially eats up a lot of my salary. My grandfather, who is quite well-off, has helped me out with preschool tuition payments once or twice when I’ve been in a pinch. He has no other grandchildren other than my older brother and me and has been struggling with health problems for several years. He always made it clear that when he died, everything would be split equally, including his brownstone.
Recently, he and my brother had a big argument about my brother refusing to ask his fiancée to get a prenup, and he ended up disowning him. My grandfather has since reached out to me, saying that he misses me and my son and is having a hard time living alone at his age. He wants us to move in with him, supposedly to keep him company and be there if he gets sick again, but he has hinted that it’s because we’ll be living there someday.
I think it’s all just to get back at my brother and show him that he’s no longer getting the place or his money. I know that if I took him up on his offer, I’d hurt my relationship with my brother, but I also know how much of a difference this would make in my son’s life. He adores his great-grandpa, and if I didn’t have to worry so much about rent, I could focus on saving more money for his college—not to mention that my grandfather lives in an area of the city with excellent public schools, while the schools in my area are less than great. Do you think I should take my grandfather up on his offer, or would it be a greedy thing to do? Is there any way I can do this without ruining my relationship with my brother?