Obligation to stepdad in retirement.

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Athena and Elizabeth here(It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt,

My parents divorced when I was 10, and my father moved overseas. My mother quickly met, moved us in with, and later married Jim. Jim and I didn’t get along while I was growing up—he was an alcoholic, and I was a smart-alecky kid, hurt he had “taken my mom away”—and I graduated school early just to get out of their house. He has since quit drinking, and we get along now. I am my mother’s only child and Jim has no children of his own.

I’m in my mid-30s now and have worked hard to be successful in my career. Jim has recently retired, and my mother has expressed to me that it doesn’t seem that he will be able to make ends meet on his retirement savings and social security. As long as I’ve known him, Jim preferred to spend his money on toys, and would ride out unemployment benefits as long as they would last between jobs. My mother has her own money and savings, mostly due to her hard work and sacrifices, plus some inheritance.

As part of their recent estate planning, my mother and Jim told me they were adding me to the deed to their joint home. It was historically Jim’s family home, but my mother put significant money (and work) into it when we moved in, and more over the years.

After the fact, my mother asked me to contribute to the annual property taxes, as Jim feels he “gave away his family home for free” and “can’t make ends meet in retirement.” I would never have agreed to this! It feels like I am being asked to subsidize a retirement he is choosing, but cannot afford. If they were to sell the home tomorrow, they would not include me in the proceeds, so I do not feel I should have to contribute to the taxes.

Am I being unreasonable? I could easily afford this, but so could my mother (or Jim, for that matter, if he sold off some toys).

-Not Going To Pay For That

Dear Not Going to Pay,

First, I think your mother needs to clarify what she means by “putting you on the deed”. If she is making you a part owner of the home, then she and Jim can’t sell it and fail to include you in the proceeds. You should ask for a clarification and make sure you see the relevant paperwork. If you now own equity in a home, you need to know that!

But if it turns out you have no equity in the home, I’m not sure why your mother would expect you to pay taxes on it. Do she and Jim plan to leave it to you as part of an inheritance? If that’s so, and they can produce some documentation to that effect, there might be a pragmatic argument for you to pitch in tax-wise, since it’s going to be yours. But even then, I don’t think you have an ethical obligation to put money toward an asset that you don’t own yet.

So the shorter answer is, no, you’re not being unreasonable. But you do need to better understand what your status is with regard to ownership of the house, because that has tax implications—not just for your mom and Jim, but for you as well.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I want a divorce, but I am broke! Pretty much literally. I just have a bunch of credit card debt that my entire paycheck goes to, and a small savings that we’re currently depleting for marriage counseling. I would gladly just give all that cash to my partner for first and last on a separate apartment. We don’t share any of our debt, except for the condo and a car, and we don’t have kids, so I feel like mediation would be a more affordable way to go than counseling.

The condo is not in a position to sell right now. I could afford to take on the monthly mortgage and HOA fee, if I got rid of the car payment, and I’d be happy to do that, but I don’t think the bank would let me refinance just under my name, and I have no way to buy my partner out. What can I do in the next few months to prepare and help me get out? Is the only way through taking a hit on selling our condo?

–I’m Done Here

Dear Done,

I’m sorry you’re in such a tough spot. If you think marriage counseling isn’t working and are sure you want a divorce, then there’s no point in continuing to pay for counseling. I think you’re going to have to make that clear to your partner and have a talk about how to exit the marriage in a way that protects your mental health and leaves both of you on stable footing financially. This will mean some compromise, and given the state of the marriage, you may not be able to work through these things on your own. So, I would recommend a mediator anyway, because a third party can help lower the temperature when things get heated, and offer an objective perspective on what’s fair.

If you can’t come to terms on an agreement, the court will decide for you. The condo will be treated as joint marital property, and the court may order the person who remains the occupant of the condo to pay their former spouse a distribution that reflects the value of ownership. I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say the condo is “not in a position” to sell right now, but unless one of you can buy the other out, or compensate them in some other way for the equity, it may be your only option.

Dear Pay Dirt,

Because of a chronic illness, I can only work part time. Even with three degrees, including one from an Ivy League university, I have never been able to find decent paying jobs. It’s always been minimum wage or slightly less. I can’t work on my feet, so I am currently working for less in a work at home role than I could at major retail chains. For a few years I went undiagnosed and didn’t have a treatment, so I racked up credit-card debt. It’s pretty overwhelming and has gone to collections. I was terrible with my money in grad school because of being sick and undiagnosed, and so I have a ton of student loan debt as well. I’ve been looking for higher paying jobs but can’t even get an interview for any tutoring positions. Financially, I’m okay right now, but can’t put much towards debt payment.

Luckily, during the pandemic, I got back into frugal spending. I tend to go in and out of my frugal spending mode a lot. Now that I’m back in it, I am so stressed about money. I relish saving money, but I just don’t even want to pay for things that I actually need. For example, I have a terrible coat that is about ten years old, has a ton of holes and isn’t as warm as I would like. I wouldn’t even spend $10 at Goodwill for a new coat because I was so stressed about wasting my money.

I finally applied for SNAP, and for the first couple of months, it was great. I felt so empowered making a budget and sticking to it. Buying food is the only thing I actually get to spend money on, and something I really like, but I gradually started getting stressed out by that, too. I thought it would be really good to have a splurge week at the beginning of the month, but now I just freak out about anything I splurge on. I have a job again, I don’t need to stay completely within my SNAP budget, but for some reason I just feel so much anxiety about spending anything more.

Do you have any advice on how I can stay frugal, without feeling so pressed and anxious all the time?

–None Of This Feels Good 

Dear None of This Feels Good,

Having debt and struggling to make ends meet, are stressful situations that can sometimes turn otherwise good habits like budgeting and being frugal into obsessive behaviors. It sounds like that’s what’s happening to you. Habits that make you feel like you’ve got a little more control over what’s happening may have morphed into patterns of behavior that you become irrationally afraid to deviate from, lest you end up back in the same place. Financial struggles can be traumatizing, so it’s not surprising that this is happening.

I have an anxiety disorder myself, and sympathize with your tendency to fixate on things that are producing stress for you. Personally, I find it helpful to identify my underlying fears, and examine where I might be imagining potential catastrophes that are unlikely to happen. In your case, it could be that any time you’re tempted to spend a little extra, you imagine some kind of a slippery slope that leads to irresponsible spending. But if you really are budgeting, whatever you’ve got earmarked for splurging won’t do that, and it may help to find a way to really enjoy the splurge and train yourself to be grateful for it. Invite a friend to help you find the $10 coat, or make a dinner with the food you bought. You want to associate the experience of spending that money with pleasure, not guilt.

I’d normally recommend therapy for dealing with this kind of stress, but if you’re on a tight budget and don’t have health insurance, that may not be an option. There are, however, free support groups for people who are dealing with debt and financial struggles, and I think it would also be helpful to talk to other people who are in the same situation, because you are not alone. Millions of Americans are struggling financially, and unfortunately, there’s not much of a safety net for people who are also dealing with chronic illnesses. But community support is helpful, both in terms of developing strategies for coping, and maintaining your mental health under stressful circumstances. You don’t have to do all of this on your own.

Dear Pay Dirt,

We have two kids, who each inherited half of a college fund that I actively manage, and that has grown significantly. It will be more than enough for both kids.

My oldest is going to college next year, and my youngest two years later, and I’m trying to be transparent with them about the money, and about the decisions they can make around it. We want them to choose the best school for them, while also considering the benefits of choosing a lower-cost school, trying for scholarships, etc.

How do I fairly split the leftover funds after they both graduate, to reflect the choices they make in those departments? I would like to be clear about this with them before they start deciding.

–Some Left in the Pot  

Dear Some Left,

I would split the fund evenly and make it clear that whatever they don’t use for college, they’ll be able to use for other purposes. Then they each have to decide for themselves what they want to prioritize and what they’re willing to pay for college. You also avoid any resentment that might arise if there’s a big spending disparity and you split the remaining money evenly, which could be viewed as penalizing one child for choosing a more economical option.

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