It’s no secret that raising children costs money – lots of money. No matter how airtight your divorce agreement is and how many variables and circumstances it accounts for, I can all but guarantee you that unforeseen expenses are going to come up.
The question thus becomes twofold: Which parent is responsible for them, and how will they be paid?
One way to allocate and cover costs is to create a joint expense account, with each parent designated as an owner. Joint accounts empower both parents to make purchases for the children without them having to ask for reimbursement or bicker about the cost.
Now, joint expense accounts are not for everyone, especially when the relationship is a contentious one. Having a joint expense account requires a high degree of co-parenting and trust, as it frees up parents to spend money like they would have if they were still one household, even though they are no longer.
In those cases where the relationship is amicable, the parents have equal parenting time, and no child support is being exchanged, a joint expense account can be an effective way to cover kids’ expenses quickly and with little interaction.
There are many ways to utilize a joint expense account. One of the simplest methods is for parents to fund a joint account on a monthly basis in set amounts—either in equal amounts, or proportionate to their respective incomes. Once the account hits a threshold, funding is suspended until it drops below another set threshold. For instance, every month each parent puts in $500 until the account reaches $8,000. Funding stops until the account falls to $5,000, when it resumes again.
Either parent can spend from the account, and the account can cover anything to which the parents agree. Usually, this includes everything except expenses specific to one parent’s household.
Using a joint expense account doesn’t alleviate the need to share receipts and reasons for the expenditures. Its benefit lies in creating transparency, allowing each parent to see where money is being spent and address issues as they arise.
Not surprisingly, there are many apps available to help divorced couples track their expenses. One of the most widely used tools is Our Family Wizard. According to an article in Reuters, courts in all 50 states use the app to assist in high-conflict cases. Subscription pricing for the app currently begins at $99 per year, per parent. Couples can also share expense information via more traditional means, including Google Docs and DropBox.
Apart from having trust in one another to behave honestly and equitably, the success (or failure) of a joint expense account will ultimately turn on how well that couple can communicate with one another, devise a workable plan, and stick to it.
Doing so is no easy feat, particularly when parents have vastly different financial circumstances, values, and opinions about what is a necessary expense and what is not. However, these are obstacles that parents can overcome if they are each committed to making a joint expense account work for them.
The bottom line is this: successful co-parenting is dependent upon—and enabled—by many different factors, the flow of money being one of the most significant. If, based on your existing situation, you believe a joint expense account will enhance your ability to co-parent, and not hinder it, then it's worth a try. As with all aspects of co-parenting, getting it right may take some trial and error, but like Albert Einstein once said, “You never fail until you stop trying.”