College is expensive, and the costs will no doubt continue to rise. Even if your child is not of college age, you are smart to consider these anticipated expenses at the time of your divorce. Do not wait until acceptance letters start arriving to address college payments with your ex-spouse. Negotiate the cost of college now so that you will both be prepared when the time comes.
Put it in Writing
First, understand that neither you nor your child’s co-parent are obligated to pay for college. For many families, college is simply unaffordable or would require substantial borrowing and resulting student loan debt. A court would not require a parent to take on that type of debt for their (adult) children. Because children are no longer “minors” when attending college, a parent’s duty to support a child through college is a voluntary one. However, the court will enforce a stipulated court order to support adult children or a contract between former spouses to do so.
With that said, do not rely on verbal agreements when it comes to college payments. College tuition is likely to be one of the most expensive investments in your children’s lives. For those who are not fortunate enough to have a fully funded 529 college savings account for your child, your best opportunity to negotiate a fair apportionment of the future cost is at the time of the divorce settlement.
Many parents are hesitant to do so and take a “wait and see” approach based on many factors including, a child’s future likelihood of success at college or confidence in a parent’s financial ability to contribute to an expense many years in the future. One cannot know what circumstances lie ahead such as job loss, economic downturn or a health crisis, all of which could detrimentally impact a parent’s ability to contribute to this sizeable future expense. Consider these possibilities before you enter into an agreement or order which cannot be modified or made contingent.
Determine Who Pays for What
There are various ways to determine who should pay for which college expenses. The simplest arrangement is to agree to split all costs 50-50, which assumes you have the same economic ability to contribute as your Ex. Another option is for one parent to pay for tuition while the other parent pays for the likely less expensive room and board. Items to consider when splitting costs, in addition to tuition and boarding, include books, fees, health expenses, lab and extra-curricular expenses, travel expenses, and possibly a stipend for the student for cell and internet connection, necessities or spending money.
Payments, Caps, and Limitations
Once you have determined how much money is needed for college and who will pay, determine how this will be paid, and put that in writing. One option is to set up an escrow account. Each parent can be required to submit a set payment per month. In some cases, a parent may opt to make a lump payment that is then invested in a college savings account while the child is young. These “529” accounts provide a number of benefits but have restrictions on how the money will be spent, so do your homework.
Payment caps and other restrictions may be a consideration for some families. You may want to place a cap on the maximum number of years that you will pay for a child’s college education. This will prevent you from being expected to support a college student for an indefinite amount of time. You should cover whether graduate school is included or not. A limit on the amount of money a parent will contribute per semester is also an option. An important point also to include in your agreement is whether full-time student status or a certain academic GPA is required to trigger the obligation for a contribution from the parents. I have seen a college payment provision backfire on the well-intended parents when a student opts to register for one class a semester over many years or consistently keeps failing grades but yet a parent is obligated to continue supporting them. Also, is art or trade school considered college in your agreement? Being specific will set expectations for everyone.
Require Insurance in Your Agreement
Life is unpredictable, and there is the chance that a parent will pass away, become disabled, or lose their job at some point after the divorce and before the child goes to college. This is where life insurance and disability insurance come into play. If anything happens to either parent, having insurance in place could help ensure the child’s college education will be protected financially.
The lesson here is to consider all of the options and consult with an experienced divorce attorney to help you negotiate the best arrangement to ensure your child’s educational future is safe.