NEW YORK (Reuters) - Most divorce decrees do not get down to the nitty gritty of how much is appropriate to spend on kids’ soccer gear - and that can be a recipe for anger and resentment down the road even for the happiest of split couples.
Just ask Christopher Jones, 44, a divorced dad of three from Sebastian, Florida.
Jones’ ex-wife would call him and tell him what amount she needed for shoes or camp, and he would hand over checks when they were exchanging the children. But Jones says he resented that he did not know exactly where his money was going.
While child support is usually a fixed amount determined by a formula, there is a lot of other money that changes hands between divorced parents. The “add-ons” or “extras” for shared expenses can sometimes be more than the base monthly amount due, and it is up to each family as to how they deal with the endless exchange of funds.
Of course, there is now an app for that. Many families - whether divorced or never married - are turning toward child support-specific programs or just general budgeting programs to provide accountability and track payments.
It can save thousands of dollars in legal fees to avoid conflict. For a lawyer who charges more than $400 an hour, a six-minute phone call to deal with a missing check can run about $40, says Brian Perskin, a New York-based divorce attorney with his own firm.
One of the most established programs, Our Family Wizard (www.ourfamilywizard.com/ofw/), which launched in a lower-tech version in 2001, is up to 50,000 subscriber families. The site is growing at 50 percent per year in users. Courts in all 50 U.S. states can order use of the program in high-conflict cases, which costs $99 per parent per year.
Other programs include: SupportPay (supportpay.com/); 2Houses.com (www.2houses.com/en) and DivorceLog (thedivorcelog.com/). Families can also use general tracking programs, such as Evernote (evernote.com/), DropBox (www.dropbox.com/) or Google's Google Docs to share receipts and other financial information.
Simply providing proof of an expense can go a long way toward preventing conflicts.
With Our Family Wizard, for instance, the parent initiating an expense creates an entry, and then attaches a receipt. Usually there is a pre-set formula for how the amount is split - like 50-50 on medical expenses, but maybe one parent pays 70 percent of sports-related costs. Once approved by the other parent, the money is transferred from an attached account, like PayPal or a joint checking account.
“All along, it’s stamped. It provides a great deal of visibility,” says Jai Kissoon, CEO of Our Family Wizard.
One client of SupportPay, for instance, discovered through the app that his child’s medical expenses were high because his ex was taking the child only to out-of-network providers. He ended up modifying his payments to have a cap, says SupportPay CEO Sheri Atwood.
Another advantage of software is that it takes direct communication out of the equation.
Divorced mom Lola Serrano, 47, from Naples, Florida, turned to SupportPay after years of trying other methods. “It was very frustrating. I tried doing a spreadsheet. That was a mess. I tried email,” Serrano says. “For a while, it got hard. I didn’t want to ask for anything.”
SupportPay, a free app launched last year that has about 11,000 subscribers, allows each parent to add expenses, then the system emails the one who owes.
“We send the bills and reminders and monthly summaries - it’s not an email from the ex. It’s just like any other bill you owe. That takes all the emotion out of the conversation,” says Atwood.
When it comes to divorce finances, reconciliation is about the balancing of accounts, not getting back together. Receipt-tracking systems allow users to discover patterns that help avoid future conflict.
“When you put it in context of six months, you get a better sense of who owes who what and what is my deficit,” says OFWs Kissoon.
SupportPay does a net-balance report to help with this. “If he spends $50 on softball and she spends $100 on cheerleading, then you can equal it out,” says Atwood.
With everything spelled out, there is little room for misunderstandings that cause anger. “It’s nice to not have to fight about the financial issues anymore,” Serrano adds. “I can put the info out there, and he can see it and he understands.”
Of course, sometimes parents do still need to talk with each other.
"It amazes me how much stuff co-parents try to solve by text. Are you talking about college via text? These are very big conversations, and they take practice," says Michelle Crosby, CEO of Wevorce (www.wevorce.com/), a divorce mediation tool.
Editing by Lauren Young and G Crosse
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