I recently participated in a local access television program with a woman related the following story. After she was widowed, she met and fell in love with a widower. She sold her home and moved in with him. Unfortunately, a decade later, the man was ready to move on, and she had to move out, ready or not. She had no place to go, having given up her home.
Couples getting together later in life is far from unusual. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans over age 50 cohabiting rose 75% from 2007 to 2017. Neither is problems arising down the road. This woman’s story is unusual in terms of how she was left high and dry. It’s much more common to run into difficulties when one member of the couple either becomes incapacitated or passes away. Disagreements often arise with the children of the ill or deceased partner over issues of care, living arrangements and money. When there has been no advance discussion of what the partners’ expectations were when they moved in together and those agreements have not been communicated to their children it’s much more likely that difficulties will happen.
To head off future disagreements and the related stress and dislocation, it’s important before taking the major step of cohabiting, and potentially giving up one’s own home, that the couple answer the following questions, and write down their responses:
- How will you share living expenses?
- Who will pay for bigger-ticket items, such as vacations, especially if one member of the couple has more financial resources than the other?
- What happens if you break up? This is especially important if you’re living in a home owned by one member of the couple. In that case, how much time will the other have to find a new place to live?
- If there’s a discrepancy in financial resources, will the partner with more wealth assist the one who must move? If so, by how much?
- What happens if one of you becomes ill or suffers from dementia? Will the other care for him or her? For how long? Are there resources to hire caregivers?
- Who will decide how those resources are spent?
- Again, if the partner with fewer financial resources must move from the home owned by the other (whether it’s the ill partner or the healthy partner who must move), will there be financial support from the better-off member of the pair?
- If the owner of the home must move to an assisted living facility or nursing home, how much time will the other partner have to move out?
- What happens when one member of the couple dies, especially if he or she is the owner of the home or the surviving member cannot afford the home on his or her own? How long will the survivor be allowed to stay in the home?
- Again, will he or she be provided any financial support?
- Will this be incorporated into each partner’s estate planning documents?
The couple could answer these questions together. But an interesting exercise might be for each partner to write down the answers himself or herself and then to compare the results. Then they’ll see clearly whether their expectations match and where they may need to compromise.
Finally, put the final results in writing. As I explained in this blog post, doing so serves several purposes.