How to handle FAFSA when you’re about to divorce.

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

Dear Pay Dirt,

This feels shameful to write, but I am very concerned about the financial obligations I have towards paying for my stepkids’ college. I married their dad when they were young teens and preteens. At the time, they lived with their mother the next state over, and my contact with them was very limited. My husband traveled alone to visit them, and I only saw them several times a year when they came for extended visits on school breaks.

Then the pandemic turned their mom’s life upside down and the kids came to live with us full-time. Immediately before this, my marriage was rocky and my husband and I had a trial separation. (During the separation I did not directly communicate with my stepkids, and I don’t know if they knew their dad and I weren’t together.) We were trying to patch things up when the kids suddenly needed to come live here.

I did step up to help the kids once they got here, getting them through virtual schooling, arranging activities, and trying to create a stable home life. But now that they are living with us, my husband is the custodial parent and my income will be a factor in their college financial aid (this is for FAFSA schools, which is what the oldest is considering). This was something my husband and I never discussed because the kids were living with their mom and then we were on the cusp of divorcing. I admit I didn’t really understand a lot about this before I started helping the oldest with the applications. I do know there’s no substantial money saved for any of the kids, though they each have a small 529.

To tell the truth, I still don’t know what will happen with my marriage. We are in therapy but have put big decisions on hold while we try to navigate the pandemic with the kids here. I don’t want to screw over my stepkids, but one is applying now and another will apply next year. I make a lot more than their father, have some assets that are only in my name, and pay for nearly all the expenses of the household.

I am balking at the idea of making serious contributions to their college, when I may be divorced from their father after I finish paying and would be left in a bad financial situation myself. The amount that feels comfortable to contribute is nowhere near what the EFC [expected family contribution] is with my income included. The kids’ plans were all predicated on the mom’s relatively low income being factored as the custodial parent. What should I/we do?

—In An Odd Position, Here

Dear Odd Position,

I spoke to Ronald Ramsdell, a college financial aid consultant, about your situation, and without knowing some specifics about which academic years the kids are applying for and which colleges they’re considering, it’s hard to be precise, but there are a few broad options that are available to you.

First, Ramsdell suggested talking to the financial aid offices directly, because some schools will customize packages to take into account that you are not the custodial parent, even if you’re part of the custodial household. What this means is that they may agree to leave your income out of the calculation entirely. “It’s how you communicate and negotiate with the schools,” Ramsdell told me.

If you’re separated or divorced, the schools will not expect to include your income anyway. The implication is that if you happen to get divorced before the children apply, it’s a non-issue. Only their dad’s income will be included in the FAFSA. Ramsdell says he’s had unmarried clients with children who were concerned that their combined income would make the kids eligible for less financial aid, and he advised them to wait till the third year of their children’s education to get married, if they could.

I don’t believe you have an ethical obligation to pay for your stepkids’ schooling, but if you choose to make a contribution, you will likely have to speak the school’s financial aid offices directly to determine whether they’ll assess your income as part of the household.

There’s no shame in being concerned about this, or needing to take care of yourself under the circumstances.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My wonderful fiancé and I are in the very beginning stages of planning a wedding, with big dreams of a modern, black-tie-optional downtown wedding in the city where we currently live, and we are experiencing serious sticker shock. We should have realized the very expensive city we live in would also be one of the most expensive cities to get married in, but we thought that with the generous budget we have been given by my parents (around $65K) the wedding we’re picturing would be no problem. We’re very quickly realizing that’s not the case, and to get the wedding we’re envisioning we could end up spending $35K over budget.

To make things more complicated, my parents have some non-negotiables that are keeping this affair expensive: wedding should take place in a central location within walking distance to hotels and restaurants, must have a seated dinner and full open bar, and all members of my large family must be invited, so not much flex on guest count (even though many of them probably won’t come).

I am ready to high-tail our wedding to another city where we can stretch our budget even further, but then we have the added headache of planning from afar, and extra travel to get to that other city throughout the process. (All guests will be flying in from out of state no matter where the wedding is, so nothing would change for them.) Should we stay in our current expensive city, and almost certainly go way over budget, or pick a different city that will allow us to stay in budget, but will require some logistical headaches during the planning process?

—I Can’t Believe These Prices

Dear I Can’t Believe These Prices,

There are ways to cut costs without ruining your wedding, but before we get into them, I want to address the issue of your parents’ non-negotiables. They may be paying for the wedding, but it is not their wedding. It is your wedding. The only people who should have non-negotiable mandates for your wedding are you and your fiancé. There are some ways to accommodate what they want if you want to do it, but first you need to set some boundaries with them. If it’s important to you to please them, or you feel obligated because they’re paying for the wedding, then at least make it clear to them that some of the things they’re requesting are precisely the things that will drive the wedding over budget. A seated dinner, in particular, can be incredibly expensive, and you will likely pay per person, so every time you add a guest (plus any significant others), your cost will go up.

I’m not going to advise you to go to City Hall and have canapes in your backyard because that’s not what you want, and if having a fancy glamorous affair is important to you and your fiancé, let’s work with that. First, what needs to be expensive, and what doesn’t? You don’t mention which expensive city you live in, but you want the wedding to be “downtown,” wherever that is. I assume it’s trendy and pricey. Consider other parts of your city that might not be right in the center of things, but do check some other box: nearby hotels and restaurants, etc. Once you’re in the venue, what part of town you’re in won’t matter. Food and drink can easily end up being the most expensive part of your wedding. So consider what “seated dinner” means, if that’s important to you. A buffet option might not feel as grand as a five-course dinner with wait service, but it is still a seated dinner.

Consider, generally, what’s important to you. As you’ve probably already heard from your married friends, you won’t remember most of what you cared about in the planning process after the big day. When my husband and I got married (also in a big expensive city, but mostly because ninety percent of our guests live here) we decided that we cared about making it accessible to our friends financially (not everybody can afford to travel), having good food, and hiring a very specific Bulgarian DJ who normally sneers at weddings, but very nicely made an exception, this one time, but only this one time. Prioritizing allowed us to figure out what we didn’t need to spend money on: insanely expensive floral arrangements, separate venues for the wedding and reception, random decorative objects that everyone would forget.

We got married outdoors, next to the building that housed the reception, and hired a music school student to play the guitar as we walked down the aisle. I don’t remember what he played and I don’t care, because none of my memories are about those kind of details. I remember that I danced with my dad to a Hank Williams Sr song and he was laughing and tearing up at the same time. I remember that everyone had fun, and that the people I cared about were there. Everything else was icing on the wedding cake, so to speak. Decide what your two or three most important things are, and budget for that. Consider everything else “nice to have.”

Think about the big-ticket items in particular and how much they matter. I bought my wedding dress on eBay for a quarter of the price of the absolute cheapest wedding dress I found in the bridal boutiques I visited. It was a lightly worn vintage Versace gown and it was awesome. And it was red. You do not have to follow a script here: pick things you like, that will mean something to you, not just what matches up with the vision in your head of what a “modern” wedding is supposed to look like.

Most importantly of all, do not go into debt to fund your wedding. There is no add-on or extra expense over your parents’ budget that will make the difference between “great wedding” and “terrible wedding.” After a point, there’s a diminishing return to spending more money just to get one more little detail perfect.

Money advice from Athena and Elizabeth, delivered weekly.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I am a mid-30s single woman with no kids, and because of my credit score—low 500s—I feel like I am invisible. I don’t qualify for a credit card, I can’t rent a car, I can’t get an apartment without my parents co-signing. I have “modest” student loans—$38,000—that because of the CARES Act have finally come out of collections, but nothing on my credit score has changed.

I don’t know where to begin to resolve this, and I feel like I’m failing at life. I’m even embarrassed to seriously date anyone because of my financial status. I work in the restaurant industry in an expensive city, and so even though I make decent money, when it comes down to it I’m still living paycheck to paycheck. How do I get out of this?

—I Don’t Exist

Dear I Don’t Exist,

You are not alone. Millions of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and not because they’re irresponsible or have done anything wrong. There are probably many people you know who are struggling with similar issues, and you’re unaware of it because people are embarrassed to talk about financial struggles. We live in a country where people equate money with success and hard work, even though financial security is often determined by other factors, and there are plenty of people who work incredibly hard and still have trouble making ends meet.

There are also trade-offs we choose to make that mean forgoing options that might be financially more secure. If you work in the restaurant industry in an expensive city, I imagine you’re in a competitive job and that to some extent you enjoy it and the things that come with the expensive city, or you’d consider a move. It’s worth thinking about what these trade offs are, and how you value them—good and bad.

But also know that your situation is not unusual and try to be kinder to yourself. First, you should consider talking to a credit counselor. There are non-profits that specialize in helping people repair credit and get on track financially. I know it probably creates some anxiety for you to talk about these things, but having a plan will reduce your anxiety about it longer-term, and taking that first step will make you feel a lot better. When you have debt and no concrete plan for getting out of it, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and that the situation is insurmountable. Talking to a professional will help you envision and figure out a path out of it.

Lastly, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to date because you have debt. Lots of people have debt, and a date is not a lifelong commitment to combine assets. Just be upfront about your situation to anyone it seems like you might be developing feelings for—and not just as a matter of disclosure, but because it’s important to you and shapes how you’re making decisions in your life right now. There plenty of people out there who are potential partners who can sympathize with your situation, and anyone who can’t probably isn’t for you anyway.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My elderly mother has been living with us since late 2019. She has congestive heart failure and worsening mobility issues. She’s fortunately able to handle some key daily self-care needs herself. I, however, handle meals, cleaning, and laundry. Additionally, I manage all aspects of her life…medical, financial, etc.

Living with us was not a planned event but rather a sudden no-other-options scenario. She came down from my hometown, where my siblings also live, for what was supposed to be a one-month visit. But soon after she arrived my husband received a surprise cancer diagnosis, and her return home was subsequently delayed. Then COVID hit, and at the same time it became clear that she should no longer live alone. She’s been with us ever since.

I love my mom dearly, but this has all been quite a strain. Last fall I told my sister that I need her or my brother to take a turn for a while. My sister is a bit of a mess, and this went over about as well as expected. She collapsed into a figurative heap, with many tears about how she just couldn’t handle it. She called my brother, who barely involves himself in our side of the family to begin with (my sister had seemed the better of two bad places to start), and told him what I was asking. He gave a hard NO and said she’d have to go to assisted living.

The thing is, my mom has little money, enough for maybe two years of care. It seems incredibly unwise to spend what little she has when her needs are comparatively low, potentially then having nothing when her high-need days arrive. And so, at this point, I’ve begrudgingly accepted that she’s with us for the duration.

My mom’s will directs that whatever assets remain after her death are to be divided evenly among her three children. I’m wondering, though, if there’s a way, after she dies, for me to be compensated for all I’ll have done. A claim against her estate? Or some other mechanism? She doesn’t qualify for SSDI, so there’s been no help there. I’m her executor, so I’ll get a small commission from that. She also currently contributes a little money each month to help cover food and utilities. Even so, these combined are still a pittance vs. what the care I provide would actually cost. Do I have any recourse?

—Feeling Put Out Here

Dear Put Out,

You need to talk to your mom about this. You won’t be able to just invoice the estate for your expenses after she dies; you will be obligated, as the executor, to distribute her assets as she dictates in the will. If you don’t do that, your siblings could have you removed as executor for failing to fulfill your fiduciary duty. However, if your mother agrees that you should be compensated for caretaking, she can build mechanisms into her will right now, or go ahead and distribute some of her assets, whatever they are. But you will have to discuss it with her.

You are in an incredibly difficult position and I’m sorry your siblings are no help. Depending on what your mother’s finances look like, you may be eligible for services that can help subsidize her caregiving. (Here, your brother should at least be able to help you research options, especially if he’s insisting that she go into assisted living. Someone would have to pay for that if you agreed to it; is he willing?)

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There are also federal, state, and local organizations that offer financial assistance for elder care, and a few that will compensate family members for acting as caregivers if she qualifies for Medicaid. Without knowing more about the specifics of your situation, I don’t know what you’re eligible for, but there are umbrella organizations like the AARP that provide state-based resources to help you navigate that.

I would also recommend joining a local caregiver support group. There are plenty of people who are in your exact situation, or have been through it before, who have already had to navigate some of what you’ll need to deal with in the future. They can make the process easier by sharing what they’ve already learned and offer you some emotional support you’re not getting from your siblings. You don’t need to start from scratch, and you don’t need to do this alone.

It’s a good idea to go ahead and do these things, even if your mother does not need full-time services right now. At some point she may, and you may not be able to personally provide them. You should have a discussion with her about how to proceed that takes this into account. Emphasize to your siblings that at some point, you may not be able to care for your mother, and that you all need some plan for if or when that happens.


More Advice from Slate

I plan to be married soon. My fiancé and I don’t want a big to-do but would like to mark the occasion with a small ceremony and invite immediate family and a few close friends. This is a second marriage for both of us. My ex-husband and I remained civil to one another for the sake of our children. My fiancé and my ex get along well, and we occasionally socialize with him and his significant other. My ex is a judge and as such is able to perform weddings. My fiancé and I talked it over and would like to ask him to marry us. Problem is when I mentioned our plan to my sisters, they had a fit. They said it would be tacky and would make other family members uncomfortable to have my ex marry us. Are our plans just too “out there”?