Individuals Going Through Divorce
Sharing College Costs After a Divorce
By: Bonnie M.S. Reiss
One of the most difficult issues facing divorced parents is financing the college education of a child. Since income which use to be available for one household must now support two, there is usually little opportunity to accumulate savings. Psychological issues often intervene between parents and their maturing children and unresolved anger from the divorce resurfaces. While it is nearly impossible to guarantee that both parents will contribute according to their financial ability, there are some strategies which will increase the likelihood that the child will receive financial help from both parents.
It is useful to examine what circumstances stand in the way of a parent’s willingness to contribute to college. Often there is no game plan for paying for college. Parents get divorced and their divorce agreement is silent on college. Thus, no one plans for the expense while there is still time to save. No one looks at whether the law of the state in which the parents live impose an obligation on divorced parents to share college costs. Some states, notably Pennsylvania and Georgia emancipate children at age eighteen or graduation from high school. The law of other states limit the amount which a parent can contribute to the cost of a state institution. Thus, if parents don’t address the costs of college in their divorce agreement a parent who is committed to the child’s education may be left with an unmanageable share or even the entire bill. If the obligation to contribute is imposed in the divorce agreement, even without fixing the amount or percentage, a parent will be more invested in financing the obligation from the outset.
It is also important to define “college”. Tuition, room, board, books and student fees are only the tip of the iceberg. Other costs include college application fees, which can easily cost hundreds of dollars, transportation to visit colleges, fees for SATs and other college admission exams. Serious students often employ college counselors and take courses or private tutoring costing thousands of dollars, to prepare for SAT exams. Once the student is accepted, there is a new wave of expense – linens, towels, storage containers and computers for dorm rooms are just a few of the items that must be purchased at the start of college. Children who attend school outside of the state where the parents live will have transportation costs as well. It is helpful to name these items in the definition of college in the agreement. Similarly, parents should try to plan for how will the added costs for college impact on the payment of child support. The cost of raising a child is not substantially diminished when the child goes to college. The parent’s shelter expense doesn’t change and the modest reduction in food is more than made up by these new college costs.
At the same time, the parents’ income and assets usually do not increase at the same level as these costs. Are there funds existing at the time of the divorce which can be saved and invested to help meet these increased costs? Are the parents prepared to agree that if they receive an inheritance, gift or bonus between the divorce and the start of college a portion will be put away for college to be reimbursed to parent if not used? What is the child’s obligation to apply for financial aid and/or work to contribute? All these questions should be addressed in the divorce agreement even if they cannot be definitively resolved. If the agreement shows that the parents anticipated the costs, it is more likely that a court will impose the obligation.
Most important is the relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent. This factor, more than any other, determines a parent’s willingness to contribute to a child’s college expenses. During adolescence children often resist spending time with both parents. Spending the weekend in a different town, away from the child’s friends often meets with resistance. It is understandable that the non-custodial parent interprets this as rejection, permitted or even encouraged by the custodial parent, when it is more likely simply part of growing up and separating. The child must be encouraged to maintain the relationship with the non-custodial parent, even if the relationship must be reinvented. It is also critical that the non-custodial parent be flooded with information about the child’s grades and extra-curricular activities, awards and prizes, successes and difficulties from the date of the divorce through college selection. Information should be requested from the custodial parent and provided by the custodial parent in writing. It is the responsibility of the parent spearheading the college selection process and the child to keep the other parent informed in writing of the colleges under consideration, the reasons for considering the schools, the costs, acceptances, financial aid etc. Invite the other parent to accompany the child to visit colleges. Information must be provided continually during the process, not when the deposit is due. Use E-mail!
None of these strategies guarantee that the cost of college will be shared voluntarily. They do, however, include both parents in the decision, increase the likelihood that both parents will be invested in the process, allow both parents to plan and prepare for how they will meet the obligation and if all else fails help to convince a judge that a resistant parent should be compelled to contribute.
Mrs. Reiss is a partner at Paras, Apy & Reiss, P.C. in Red Bank, New Jersey. She has practiced family law for more than 30 years handling complex financial and custody cases. She is an approved mediator by the Supreme Court of New Jersey and is trained in Collaborative Divorce. She is the author of Divorce: A Guide to the Process which can be downloaded here.