When Elena and Joe divorced almost 12 years ago, they wanted to get it over as quickly and amicably as possible. But because their daughter was 4, it never occurred to them to discuss how they would share the financing of her college education.
Now, Sofia is 16 and excitedly looking at university applications. Elena is stressed and feels guilty because she doesn’t know how she will be able to pay for it. She is even afraid to talk about it with Joe, especially because he remarried and has two more children bound for college in a few years. Heck, he constantly “jokes” about how happy he’ll be in two years when he doesn’t have to pay any more child support.
The hard truth is this: if there is nothing written in the divorce agreement and except for a few atypical cases where it is ordered by the courts, there is no legally binding financial obligation on the part of either parent to pay for college tuition or other educational expenses.
“I can’t put enough stress on the fact that this should be negotiated from the get-go in a divorce settlement agreement. In fact, I advise my clients to include a separate written college support agreement in addition to any other child support terms,” says family law attorney Carolann Mazza.
Such agreements typically are broken down to percentages of college expenses — which include rent, meals and other items, in addition to tuition — that each parent is responsible for, with a cap or annual maximum and restrictions on what kind of college the children may choose. Many parents who will agree to pay half of the expenses at state universities may not feel as generous with Ivy League schools.
“Every family is different,” says Mazza. “And it’s best to have all the details and issues discussed and resolved in advance. That way the college application process can be positive and happy, as it should be.”
There are many ways to secure college financing in a divorce agreement. For example, one is to have the funds put in an escrow account for future withdrawal and another is to get a lump sum that can be managed to make the college funds available when needed.
The best idea is to consult with a divorce financial planner who has the skills and expertise to recommend the best path for you, based on your financial situation and complex projections of future college costs and its present value today.
College may be the last thing on your mind during the difficult divorce process, but it will weigh on your conscience later if you don’t think about it now.
Just ask Elena and Joe.
As is life, misguided and uninformed decisions always cost money in a divorce.
Carlos Blanco founded Matters of Divorce www.mattersofdivorce.com to provide answers, referrals and support to people considering divorce or who recently have been divorced. He may be contacted by calling 305-908-1171 or sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.