Family and Friend Agreements: Awkward or Smart?

Let’s begin with a scenario happening all over the country these days. Your grown children graduate from college and move back home because they can’t find a job or have a job but aren’t earning enough to live on their own. You give them the nod to come back, but are a little nervous because you and your spouse have already become very comfortable living in the nest they long ago vacated.

The young adults, also used to living without supervision, return and since there are few guidelines laid down upfront, there is soon tension around chores, coming and going, and boundary issues.That’s all just part of it, right? At least where I come from it is.

Deborah Hutchison, founder of A Sane Approach to an Emotional Issue, says there’s a better way – The Adult Children Living at Home with Parents Agreement/Emotional Contract that she’s created with Judge Lynn Toler of FOX’s Divorce Court.

Here’s the impressive thing about Hutchison right out of the gate. When I tell her prior to our interview that I’m skeptical about the need for the dozen agreements she’s created for an array of life situations, that I’m wondering if the idea of presenting your child or sibling or friend with a piece of paper to sign isn't a jaded way to conduct relationships, she is undaunted. I put the onus on her to convince me and she happily rises to the challenge.

“It opens things up, it doesn’t restrict,” Hutchison says of using an agreement. “It’s not going to jeopardize. It clarifies.”

As we talk, I can’t help but wonder if my skepticism comes from a place of anxiety about having hard conversations that require boundary setting. It takes courage to tell someone you love that you’ll share quarters or loan money, but only if they sign a piece of paper.

“The questions you don’t ask, you just stew and stew,” Hutchison says.

Sticking with the aforementioned scenario, Hutchison’s agreement – available for purchase along with the other contracts on her website -- between a parent and an adult child moving back home is written in direct, but caring language. It addresses “individual and shared obligations and expectations” like whether the child will pay rent, use the family car, obtain health insurance, feed pets, and share common space in the house.

Hutchison tells me a story about a couple she knows who used the agreement and heard this comment from their son: I never knew you did this much for me. She relates another where three grown children moved home and all signed the agreement, one reluctantly.

“They all signed it and they all eventually left,” Hutchison said. “That was the idea.”

Hutchison – co-author with Toler of the book Put It in Writing that includes the agreements -- is clearly tickled that her creations are smoothing out the bumps in people’s lives. There are agreements for lending money, sharing pets, caring for aging parents and even a teenage driving agreement.

What spurred this all into action was Hutchison’s divorce from her first husband. She had helped put him through medical school and was simply looking to be reimbursed, so they agreed on a set amount to be paid over 10 years. When he stopped paying after three years, she decided to create an agreement and bill him so she’d have a record of payments. The next time he stopped paying, she had the documentation to back up her claim.

“He wrote a check,” she says. “I felt vindicated.”

That’s how a woman with a degree in secondary education -- not law -- wound up winning best new product in a law-related field with the Bill Your Ex system, a tool for collecting court-ordered support payments from spouses. It’s not such a leap, then, to envision her coming up with a range of scenarios and ways to make them more palatable and structured with proper agreements. Enter her business, A Sane Approach, whose tagline is “Paper handshake, printed promise, published commitment.”

“I didn’t start any of this until after I was 55,” Hutchison says.

She is not short on guts. On her book project, she approached Sterling Publications before she officially had Toler on board. In another of her ventures -- Gutsy Gals Inspire Me! – Hutchison had to approach a major corporation for permission to use a story she was interested in.

“I’m an average Joe Schmo,” she says with a laugh. “Who would have ever thought I would walk up to Mercedes Benz?”

But she did. She became intrigued with the children’s book called Berta Benz and the Motorwagen by Mindy Bingham, based on a real person, and wanted to make a short animated film. The Gutsy Gals website explains that Berta was “the first person to ever drive more than a mile” and that she “turned the tide for the motor car to become a part of our modern-day lives!”“I needed to be empowered myself,” Hutchison says of the project she holds dear.

It speaks to the whole of this woman, who follows her passion and her gut and it keeps getting her places -- agreements, vindication, empowerment.

“If I can help one person …” she says.

Yep, I’m on board.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to