One of a Divorcing Mom’s Top Headaches: Who Will Pay for College?

If you’re a divorcing mom—and even if your children are still very young—do not overlook including college expenses in your divorce settlement agreement

by Jeffrey A. Landers • Divorce Financial Strategist™ and the founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, LLC

For a woman whose divorce coincides with Johnny’s acceptance to college, a proud moment can be fraught with bittersweet anxiety. Sure, Johnny survived the admission gauntlet and has been accepted to the college of his choice. But, then there’s that one thorny question casting a pall over all the good cheer: “Who’s going to pay for it?”

For some divorcing couples, the answer is uncomplicated. Money has been ear-marked for college, Johnny’s interests come first, everybody can agree on who will pay what. But for a couple whose divorce is more complex, college tuition can be a real bone of contention --especially if Dad has plans to remarry and might have other children, who will have their own tuition needs.

In short, divorcing moms must grapple with this harsh reality: Generally, child support payments stop when children reach the “age of emancipation,” which in most states is between age 18 and 21. Beyond that, unless ordered by the courts, there is typically no legal obligation for a parent to pay college tuition.

So, in the absence of a court order, the best way to secure funds for college tuition is to include the obligation in your divorce settlement agreement.  You can:

  1. have the funds put into an escrow or trust account to make sure they’re available when needed, or
  2. get an up-front lump sum payment and manage the funds wisely so they’re available when needed.

If the terms have not been negotiated in a divorce settlement agreement, the courts can order a parent to pay for their child’s education –but that depends on the state in which the divorce occurs. Most states allow courts to order the non-custodial parent to help pay for college. A few, like Alaska, Nebraska and New Hampshire, do not, except in those cases where the parents had a previous agreement.

But don’t panic. In order to reach a divorce settlement agreement that covers your child’s college expenses, you’ll need to Think Financially, Not Emotionally®. Also, please keep in mind: Even in those states that don’t require paying for college expenses, the courts recognize the need for children to have a college education. Therefore, they can allow resolution of the issue to be part of the divorce settlement agreement, in addition to the amount and term of alimony and child support to be paid.

Let’s get back to the main question. How should you best tackle the college tuition question if you’re a mom who’s in the process of divorcing?

The answer is relatively simple. If you’re a divorcing mom –and even if your children are still very young –do not overlook including college expenses in your divorce settlement agreement. In fact, make sure your divorce settlement agreement specifically includes a written college support agreement in addition to any other child support agreements.

This college support agreement typically includes details such as what percentage of college expenses each parent is responsible for, limits on payments, restrictions on which college the child should attend, exactly what expenses will be covered, etc.

Plus, it’s important to remember that college expenses are more than the cost of tuition. Any agreement should also address room and board, travel expenses, books, extracurricular activities and a monthly allowance.

Still, acknowledging all the facets of college expenses doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to reach an easy consensus.  Each one of these details usually involves negotiation. For example, conflicts often arise about exactly what type of college education a divorced parent is willing to fund. Johnny may have been admitted to a prestigious Ivy League college, where tuition, room and board can add up to well more than $50,000 a year. But, Dad may view that as a luxury he can’t afford and so he’ll agree only to pay for four years at a state school, where tuition costs are significantly lower.

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