Divorce is the easy part.
That, at least, is the conclusion that Sheri Atwood, who created the child-support payment app SupportPay, came to. A child of an acrimonious divorce herself, Atwood was committed to not making the same mistakes when she divorced her husband some years ago. "It was so amicable, it cost three hundred bucks," she says. They were wealthy Silicon Valley types: cars, houses, a boat, the whole lot. But they divvied it up fairly and without bitterness.
Then came the hard part. Because when you have a kid—as Atwood and her ex-husband did—there’s no such thing as a clean break. You’re tied to your ex, financially, forever. And while divorce agreements also include at least general provisions about child support, the devil is in the details. It’s rarely so simple as A pays B a lump sum per month. It’s a constant back and forth: you owe me for the shoes, but I owe you for the violin lessons, and did you pay me for the haircut, and was that doctor you chose really reasonably priced, and... you get the idea. "It’s constant debits and credits," says Atwood...a headache for all but the most seasoned and even-tempered bean counter.
One day, Atwood was filing expense reports to her boss during a flight back from Singapore, while also chasing reminding her ex about a bill. She began to wonder: what if families brought the best practices of business to this process? Specifically: what if there were software to help them manage? She hit the books, and found that while there’s lots of chatter about so-called "deadbeat parents" who skimp on child support, much less ink has been spilled—and much less attention paid—when it came to the majority who were paying, but found it a logistical challenge.
The app Atwood launched, SupportPay—new on iOS, also available on Android—solves a few problems, she says. By enabling parents to immediately scan and store receipts, it addresses the paranoia many a divorced parent faces: "I have no problem paying," they often say, "but I just want to make sure the money is going to my child." The app also integrates a pre-approval system, where expenses over a certain amount trigger review from one’s ex. (This solves the problem of a lawyer friend of Atwood’s who pays 100% of child support, and whose ex stuck it to him by deliberately taking the child exclusively to out-of-network doctors.) SupportPay, like other forms of accounting software, often comes handy each April, since alimony is tax deductible, but record-keeping and consistency are essential to avoid an audit.
In its first iteration, SupportPay is a subscription-based service for headache-prone, math-averse divorcees. But Atwood claims that "the vision of the company is to become a family financial-management platform"—even for that increasingly contracting market: the family that sticks together. Indeed, she thinks, software like hers could help that market grow by stripping away some of the most perilous family conversations. "When it comes to family and money, it’s a very tense situation," she says.
Consider, for example, two siblings taking care of aging parents: one pays the mortgage, the other pays the phone bill, and accounts need to be reconciled periodically. "How do you manage finances in families," asks Atwood, "when the money doesn’t fit in one household?" She notes that a lot of her company’s IP centers on solving tricky problems. For instance: how do you share exactly the amount of financial information you want to share with a family member or ex—and no more?
Families are bound up by a lot of forces—love, blood, shared experience. But a realistic appraisal shows that there’s another force, prosaic but strong: money. Homes—broken or not—can be run like businesses, suggests Atwood. She’d like to be the one to help you manage the bill.