The dilemma: Now that my partner and I are planning our lives together and seriously talking marriage, we need some financial rules to follow and can't find any. My partner has been supporting his sister and niece, who is 18, for many years and they have come to depend upon him. It just happened slowly, like a creeping vine, he says, but it's now a lot of money and is going to influence how and where we can afford to live. I don't want to be the meanie, but is it fair for me to not want "us" to have that burden? He's not happy supporting them and has tried to cut back, but his sister bullies and guilts him so it's easier for him to just keep paying. He’s afraid to go there with her.
We both have good careers but we're not rich. And we may want kids. We're only in our 40’s. His sister is 4 years younger and a single mom. Their parents died years ago in an accident, and there’s no other family. What’s fair?
Meg’s solution: Not to be snip, but fair is what feels right to you both; the compromise that you can sincerely live with that won’t regurgitate in a future argument. That being said, there are many circumstances I’m not privy to that could change my advice. But here’s where I would go with it.
His sister is either handicapped and unable, or spoiled and unmotivated to increase her income and get off the dole. Her behavior would suggest the latter. If she does have a disadvantage, then it behooves you all to try to get her into the system for any help available. Consult with a social worker, and engage her daughter as well, since she may have to be helping Mom in some way.
But if we have a privileged sister and an adult teen that can participate in her own future, it’s time to make a plan and address it together, in a united front, as adults. She’s not going to like it any more than the Greeks are loving their new austerity plan, but that can’t be your problem. Your pending marriage necessitates an honest discussion, and changes where needed. If you both can’t enjoy the home and lifestyle you want due to supporting her, then that needs to be resolved before you tie the knot.
It first takes understanding the nature of this relationship. If he’s being bullied, then you can help protect yourselves. If she’s really needy and trying as hard as she can, then perhaps you can find charity in your heart. And maybe not. You both need to know each other.
If you both decide to unwind their support, then please don’t be a “meanie” and pull the rug right out at once. Explain where you are, and make a plan of reasonably declining support while helping both sister and niece to become independent. Instead of knocking them down, lift them up. Offer ideas, courses, and what help you can to get them to stand on their own two feet. Help them budget too. But have a tight schedule for the declining support payments, and then stick to your guns. It’s called tough love for a reason.
If your partner can’t back away, or doesn’t want to, and you cannot understand the reason or agree with it even if you do, then you have some brand new decisions to make. One marries their spouse as well as any baggage they may come with. That “suitcase” doesn’t usually get left at the altar, and often has a funny way of getting heavier over time. At least your eyes are wide open.
To read a copy of my Pre Marital Moneytalk™ go to http://meggreen.com/financial-planning.
MegGreen, CFP, is a wealth manager with offices in Aventura. Her Money Dilemmas column runs monthly in the Miami Herald.