02/28/2012 12:13 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

The Politics Of Paying For Stepchildren

Here's an episode of "The Brady Bunch" I would've liked to see: Mr. and Mrs. Brady arguing about the kids' expenses. Did Mr. Brady help pay for the girls' braces? Did they decide together that Peter and Greg must get part-time jobs? Today, blended families are a dime a dozen, but the politics and etiquette of paying for stepchildren is still unique to each family. Which parent pays for what -- and for whom -- can be complicated.

Full disclosure: I am a stepmother, and my stepsons were 13 and 17 when I started dating their father. The first time the 17-year-old had an urgent need for gas money when his dad wasn't around, I cheerfully forked over the cash -- not expecting to be repaid. I was happy to be involved in helping with my stepsons' expenses, but as this situation reoccurred under different circumstances, I realized that there was no rulebook to guide me through how much financial support from a stepparent is too much or too little.

Other stepparents I know also report confusion over financial matters with their step kids. Some of their situations are simple and others more complex -- but the questions abound. Which of the kids' expenses come out of your household budget and which from your ex-spouses'? What if your ex-spouse makes less or is financially irresponsible? What if you contribute to your step kids' expenses, but your spouse's ex-spouse's new spouse doesn't? Yes, I know. That last one's a doozy!

There are no right answers to these questions because every family is different. However, talking about money openly and having a financial plan of action can help. Consider the following:

Talk about money early in the relationship. Bring up money issues as soon as you start getting serious in your relationship. Ask your significant other point blank what his or her expectations are. If you are on a limited budget, be honest about your ability to contribute as a stepparent to existing household funds and long-term financial goals. If you have the capacity and desire to pay for clothing, meals, vacations or other items for the kids, be as transparent as you can about when and how much you will pay -- inconsistency can be confusing.

Communicate on an ongoing basis. If you decide to cohabitate or marry, it's critical that you talk candidly about financial expectations around the children. Discuss your short-term and long-term budgets and goals as a couple and determine how the children's expenses fit in. Consider everything from day-to-day costs to college education. Follow up with regular conversations to discuss what is working or not working.

Have a discussion with your former spouse. As difficult as it may be, try to establish some ground rules with your exes. Put aside any negative feelings you have and be businesslike about the money conversations. Be prepared with lists and clear questions. If your spouse is the only one with an ex, be supportive but also be honest about your feelings. It's likely that there will be financial differences in how much each of you makes, your spending habits and priorities, so don't expect clarity, or even fairness, at all time -- compromise will inevitably be necessary.

Put a plan in writing. Having a written financial plan is a good idea for everyone, as it helps to articulate what you want to achieve and how to get there. It's especially helpful in blended families as a document to refer back to with ex-spouses and adult stepchildren. Consider working with a financial professional who has likely worked with blended families before, as an objective third party can offer productive suggestions and help keep you on track as you and your spouse tackle parenting responsibilities.