Planning and Paying for College as Divorced Parents

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When you’re going through a divorce, the issues to be resolved can seem endless and exhausting. Questions surrounding custody and finances, including child support, can be very tough and contentious.

One area in which those concerns all intersect is in planning and paying for a child’s education.

If your children are young when you split up, college may not yet be on your radar—but it’s an essential item to deal with in your divorce agreement.

The cost of college is on the rise. According to U.S. News and World Report, “The average college tuition cost has increased in the 2021-2022 academic year over the prior year across public and private schools.”

Even with tuition discounts and freezes given by some schools to help families navigate the financial burdens of Covid-19, U.S. News says, the average cost of college rose 1% for the 2021-22 school year at private schools and 1-2% for both in-state and out-of-state students at ranked public schools.

According to the same data, the average yearly cost of a ranked public college is currently $10,388 for in-state students and $22,185 for out-of-state, compared to $38,185 for private universities. If that’s not enough sticker shock, remember that these estimates are for tuition only—they don’t consider the hefty cost of housing, meals, books, supplies, various fees, and numerous other associated expenses.

So, how can you prepare?

First, it’s essential to know child support laws and how they pertain to higher education, vary state-to-state. In over twenty states, courts have the authority to order a non-custodial parent to pay for some part of college expenses. In California, this is not the case. Child support ends at 18 years of age unless your 18-year-old is a full-time high school student; in that instance, child support ends when the child turns 19 or graduates, whichever happens first. There is no legal obligation to pay for college.

However, arrangements made in your divorce agreement regarding your child’s education are enforceable by the court. An experienced, forward-thinking family attorney should negotiate college payment arrangements as part of your settlement to help prevent problems down the road. Though these may be thorny issues to resolve with your ex, try to work together in your child’s best interests.

Here are six tips for planning for your kids’ college education as a divorced parent:

Discuss whether you can afford to commit to paying for college—and whether it is wise.

Remember that two households cost more than one, so living as a divorced family will be more expensive. Financial experts generally caution against going into debt to pay for college, especially if it prevents you from saving for retirement. Be realistic about what you’re able to commit to and whether this is an obligation you should take on.

Decide which expenses you will cover as parents and if there is a cap.

Will you each contribute only to tuition or costs such as room and board? Will this apply no matter the price of the school your child attends, or will there be a limit? For example, some couples agree to pay for the cost of an in-state public university.

Determine how you will each contribute.

There are several standard arrangements:

  • 50/50 split.
  • Dividing proportionately by income.
  • Setting aside a joint asset to cover college.
  • No obligation/contribution.

You can also elect to set up a 529 college savings plan or agree on who co-signs various student loans. Many factors affect which will work best for your family, and in each case, it is vital to have it spelled out in your agreement.

Consider other sources you can draw on. Will your child take student loans, apply for scholarships, be expected to have a job?

Understand the ways divorce impacts financial aid. 

Divorce, custody arrangements, and even remarriage significantly affect determining financial assistance eligibility. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application requires the financial information of the custodial parent. It defines custody as the person with whom the child lived most of the time over the past 12 months. If physical custody is shared 50/50, FAFSA considers the custodial parent to be the person who provided primary financial support. The new spouse is also listed on the FAFSA if the custodial parent remarries. If divorced spouses still live in the same household, both parents must report their incomes.

A financial adviser can help you be strategic about education finances, use educational tax credits to their best advantage, etc.

In California, courts must consider the child’s best interests when hearing child custody and visitation matters. Custody, visitation, and child support require the knowledgeable, compassionate, and responsive representation Schoenberg Family Law Group, P.C., provides. If you’re going through a divorce, you can trust the veteran family law experts at SFLG to help you plan and prepare for the future—including your child’s education—as you work through custody and support issues.

By Debra Schoenberg



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