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By: Joseph Warren Kniskern, Esq.

Planning For A Family Merger — Not A Hostile Takeover

In Part 1, we learned that the common denominator in determining whether finances will ever become a problem is each partner's attitude regarding money. In Part 2, we considered scriptural principles for having the right spiritual attitude about money. Even if we have the right attitude about money, however, it certainly does not mean that the ups and downs of life will not challenge us at times.

Financial Concerns Of Widowed Persons. If there is one common complaint among widow/widowers, it is this: "My husband (or wife) handled everything. I'm so lost, and don't know what to do." Ideally, a married couple plans ahead for the possibility that one partner could die suddenly. They review options and prepare advance plans. Too often, however, women who are so accustomed to having their husbands handle the family finances are absolutely lost when widowhood comes upon them quickly.

When my maternal Grandfather passed away in 1960 after a series of heart attacks, my parents and I became painfully aware of just how much my Grandmother entrusted her life to him. Now he was gone forever, and she literally did not know how to live. When my mother went to check up on my Grandmother a few months after the funeral, she walked into the house only to see a huge pile of unopened bills on the dining room table. My Grandmother did not have a clue as to how to sort through everything, even if she had the desire to do so! Starting over as a single person is intimidating and overwhelming at times.

In 1991, Susan Overbey's husband, Keith, died of kidney cancer. Overbey, then 36, became an instant single mother of their two children. "I had two dependent children, no job and no credit in my name," she recalled. She was so wrapped up in caring for her husband, during the three years prior to his death, that she never thought ahead. How would she manage without him? "All of a sudden, I had $115,000 in life-insurance money, and I didn't know what I was doing."/[1]/ She was fortunate to have that life insurance money--something that many single parents do not have!

Many widows, who relied totally upon their husbands for financial support, are devastated by sudden death of their spouses, especially when there is no life insurance to provide for them and their children. I had a newly- married young client and a very close friend for many years, with his first child on the way some years ago. I urged him to secure adequate life insurance and to complete estate planning for his pregnant wife and child. Unfortunately, he put off these vital preparations. One day soon thereafter, a man in a stolen car whipped around a corner in downtown Miami and sheared off a stop sign, which became a projectile and hit my friend in the head. He died after being on life support for 24 hours. The medical expenses depleted the paltry $25,000 life insurance he had. Consequently, his widow had to cope with this terrible loss, while desperately trying to scrape together enough contributions from family and friends to pay for his funeral. Before giving birth to their child, she was compelled to sell the family home and move in with her parents in order to survive financially. How tragic!

In contrast, widows who are adequately provided for in life insurance, investments and other assets have a much better time coping with the loss of a husband. It is a merciful act of a husband to provide for his widow and arrange to keep her solvent after his demise. Widowhood saddens a wife enough without strapping her with debts and financial worries. One of the best recovery measures a widow can make is to move out into church and society circles. When she is ready, she can freshly redecorate her surroundings, without feeling trapped at home with only memories staring at her day after day. However, sometimes these blessings can become mixed if, for example, a widow perceives her deceased husband's investment portfolio as a "sacred inheritance" that she will not touch. Perhaps ignoring the difference in economic and political times when they were purchased, she cannot bear to part with those securities because her husband "knew all about finance." When the economy went into recession in 1999-2002 and the stock market took a major dive, many widowed (and remarried) persons in this situation suffered additional losses by ignoring sound financial advice to reallocate and diversify their portfolios.

Financial Concerns Of Single Parents. But of all persons surviving a former marriage, divorcees--and especially single parents--seem to have the toughest time with finances. Suzanne Jones, Executive Director of the Single Parent Resource Center in New York City notes that the biggest mistake single-again persons make is trying to cling to their old lifestyle. Many do not acknowledge, for example, that it might be better to trade down in lifestyle. If a home mortgage consumes more than 30 percent of a couple's monthly income, they fall prey to outspending their income, because they do not want the family uprooted. Moreover, many single parents tend to spend even more money on their children because they feel guilty about their circumstances. They become indulgent with their children, making major purchases like televisions and expensive video games, and pursuing other entertainment, travel and leisure activities. These are the very areas where most Americans cut back when money is tight! By avoiding the difficult decision to cut back, they actually create more instability in their broken family. If they cannot pay the mortgage or rent, they lose the home.

Single parents, constituting about 30 percent of all families with children under 6 years in 2001, face a major financial crunch. According to Consumer Reports, those who earn more than $38,000 will spend about 29 percent of their income each year on a child, while two-parent households earning the same income will spend just 19 percent of their earnings on their kid. In a single parent family earning an average annual income of $15,900, the cost of providing for one child, during his or her first six years of life is approximately $45,442--an enormous challenge!/[2]/

Single-again women have even more hurdles. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women earned about 76 cents for every dollar men earned in 1999. Three out of four working women earn less than $30,000 a year, and nine out of ten earn less than $40,000 a year, according to the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that women make up more than two-thirds of impoverished Americans 55 and older, with that percentage increasing in older age brackets./[3]/

[NOTE: A graphic case example follows. It contains imagery that, while not salacious or gory, may be somewhat unpleasant. If you prefer not to read it, please skip over the next three (3) paragraphs.] Sue, a Christian mother of two, and her husband, Tom, had major problems in their marriage. Tom refused to quit drinking, and caroused with other women, while secretly borrowing against all of the marital assets until the couple faced bankruptcy. They separated, with Sue having custody of the children. She worked three jobs just to survive financially.

One night Sue burned the chicken for dinner. Not being able to afford replacing the meal, she and her kids crunched down on the burnt meat and bones. Then Sue felt a dental crown slide out and down her throat. The next day, between jobs, she made an emergency visit to the dentist, pleading that he replace the crown without charge. The dentist kindly offered to donate his services, but the replacement crown was an out-of-pocket expense of several hundred dollars that Sue must pay.

Weeping as she drove on to her job, she desperately resigned herself to doing what absolutely needed to be done. She waited until she could retrieve the swallowed crown from the toilet so it could be cleansed and used again. Sue later told friends, "Isn't that a picture of what Christian life can be like? Searching through your own excrement in search of `the crown'!"

It is no wonder that so many single parents find themselves fighting the constant temptation to look for a wealthy mate, who will bail them out of debt and support them forever. To their credit, the single parents most ready for remarriage, successfully resist this urge to find a hero by accepting their circumstances and making the best of things on their own. You won't hear many single mothers yelling, "Me first! Me first!" at the expense of their children. No, they sacrificially nurture their children without making unrealistic assumptions about the future.

The point is this: Truly loving someone means empathizing with the life experiences of our prospective remarriage partners. It means trying to walk in their shoes and, as best we can, feeling what they feel. Coming alongside one another, and understanding how each coped with the divorce or death of a spouse, is just as important as having the right attitude about money.

  1. Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, January, 1993, P. 87.
  2. Consumer Reports, October, 2001, P. 60-61.
  3. Miami Herald, March 11, 2001, P. 21.

Next: Inventorying Our Blessings And Responsibilities--Yours, Mine And Ours

Joseph Warren Kniskern is a Christian attorney, mediator, and author of "When The Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide For Christians Facing Divorce," and "Making A NEW Vow: A Christian Guide To Remarriage And Blending Families," both available from Broadman & Holman Publishers, Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee.