Negotiating money and finances in a new relationship is tricky enough, but doubly so when you have dependent children to bring into the mix.
When Sophia, a separated working woman with one dependent child, decided to move in with Zac she worried how she’d survive financially without government assistance. Deciding how to split the bills in the new household was another conundrum. “People don’t know how to do it,” she says.
Blended and step-families have grown by fifty per cent over the last ten years, according to Gayle Westcott, psychologist and senior manager of client services at Relationships Australia. They now represent ten per cent of all coupled families with children in Australia.
What are the fiscal rules for such families? Should a new partner help support you and your children?
Sophia has arranged to pay half of the rent and bills when she moves in with Zac. “I think he’d happily contribute more but I don’t feel comfortable. Because ours is a new relationship – at the moment I feel comfortable that I’m more independent with money.” She plans to take on an extra day of work to meet her share of the bills.
Claire Elkinson (a re-partnered stay-at-home mother with two children) felt “hesitant" raising the subject of money with her new partner. “I felt like I came with a lot of baggage. It was him who had to convince me. Not so much to convince me, but more about putting my mind at ease that he has no issue in supporting me and the children.”
From a legal perspective within Australia, a stepparent has no legal obligation to maintain a stepchild. However, it’s not that simple.
A number of compounding factors weigh into the question. These range from how the Australian welfare and tax system treats blended and stepfamilies to the gender wage gap. Societal and personal views of motherhood and gender-based roles also play a part, as do the needs of children and the extent of support from natural fathers.
Currently in Australia, a new partner’s wages are taken into account when assessing Centrelink Parenting Payment and concessions, Child Care Benefit and Family Tax Benefit payments. This can leave a woman with dependent children with quite a large shortfall to cover, but particularly so if she isn’t in the workforce.
What happens if the woman comes from the ideological perspective that she wants to be a stay-at-home mother?
Claire says: “I grew up where my Mum was always home. I loved it, so wanted the same for my children.” She claims she wouldn’t become deeply involved with a man who wasn’t prepared to support her. “How could it work? I couldn't claim the single parent benefit if he was living with me, and if he didn't support me then how could I support the children. I know that plenty of people fraud the system and live like this, but I couldn't sleep at night doing this.”
Mothers that do work suffer from a reduced capacity to earn income compared to their counterparts without children. Limited working hours due to school hours and the cost of child-care are frequently cited.
A woman’s ability to rake in as much cash as her new man can also be hindered by the gender wage gap. Women working full time earn on average 17.6% less money than men in full time work according to figures released in 2012 by the Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Centre.
However, external factors can complicate her partner’s ability to provide a high level of financial support. This includes situations where he is paying child support to a former family.
According to Stepfamilies Australia, the strains experienced by stepfamilies are reflected in much higher rates of family breakdown with sixty per cent eventually separating (almost double that of nuclear families).
The bottom line is that the majority of men in these situations do contribute significantly to household finances. A report by Kate Funder of the Australian Institute of Family Studies (1991), found most stepfathers had high to very high rates of willingness to contribute to housing, holidays, leisure and day-to-day living expenses – an attitude she attributed to gender stereotyping.
Olivia’s partner, who is on a modest wage, pays for all the rent, bills and car costs, while she uses the family tax benefit to pay for the children’s schooling, swimming, holidays and other needs. “We do not have a joint account, however I have a card to his account,” she explains.
Both women believe a man’s ability to unite financially with her is a sign of his commitment to the relationship. “You’re bringing your partner into your life,” Sophia says. “I think most mothers don’t choose that lightly. I know that men also don’t take that lightly.” Olivia believes “if the new man is genuine he will take on the children.”
Navigating the ambiguity of who pays the bills involves the same negotiation and fairness as any other key decision. Ultimately, resources tend to be pooled in families.
“I guess when you’re thinking about the money thing what’s really questioned is what it means to be a family,” Sophia says. “Family isn’t always blood and quite often it’s not. You’ve created a different family unit. Good families work together and families work around money.”