Divorce & College Tuition Costs: What’s Your Obligation to Pay?

paying for collegeAs college tuition bills begin to arrive this month, parents can be in store for sticker shock. With college costs soaring, paying for a child’s higher education can be a challenge for any family. For divorced parents, there can be added layers of complexity. What are your tuition obligations? Do you have any say in these decisions? And what about child support?

Bari Weinberger recently wrote an in depth piece for the New Jersey Law Journal about how the courts rule when divorced parents disagree over college tuition payments, as featured on LinkedIn. What do you need to know about your rights and financial responsibilities for your college-bound child? Here are four key points to consider.

Look to Your Divorce Settlement’s Tuition Plan

Most divorce settlement agreements these days contain some language that addresses college decisions and payments and most say that both parents have some sort of financial responsibility to pay for college. The exact amount is usually calculated at the time a college is chosen and is based upon mom and dad’s salaries at that time. In the process of divorce? As you negotiate this language, it’s never a good idea to agree to a straight 50/50 split of college tuition at the time of divorce, especially if your children are very young. You never know what your financial situation will be ten, even fifteen years into the future.

Disagreeing with Your Child’s Choice of College

Don’t assume that you are able to withhold tuition payments if you are not in agreement with your child’s choice of school. In a recent New Jersey case, a father filed with the courts asking that he not be responsible for his daughter’s tuition at Stevens Institute of Technology because he wasn’t consulted and because he believed the school was academically “out of reach” for his daughter. The court disagreed and stated that at that point in the child’s life, he could offer advice and emotional support, but that he needed to honor his end of the bargain to provide financial commitment, as written in his judgment of divorce. The child honored her end of the bargain, by succeeding at Stevens.

Paying Child Support Directly to Your Now Adult Child

Many parents feel as though if their child is away at school they are mature enough to receive their child support directly, and mature enough to manage that money appropriately. Before sending your check to your child’s dorm mailbox, proceed with caution because the courts have varied opinions regarding this. For example, some courts believe that the support should still go the custodial parent, because that parent still must maintain a room, food, utilities, etc. for the child when they return for the summer or the holidays. In a recent lower court opinion, the judge allowed a father to provide child support directly to his daughter, who was still living with her mother, but commuting to college. The judge found that this arrangement actually strengthened the bond they had. However, the judge did recognize that the mother still needed money to maintain the household, so only a part of the support went directly to the child.

Requiring Your Child to Show You Their Grades

If you and your ex cannot communicate amicably, you may be wondering how you will know if your child is doing well in school. Hopefully, you and your child can discuss this together, but if you cannot, you may have to look to the courts for assistance. In the recent New Jersey case of Van Brunt v. Van Brunt, the court held that a child must now give their college transcripts to the parent paying support and/or tuition. The court held that this legal requirement does not violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act FERPA. As a result of this case, a child or a custodial parent can no longer hide behind any legal shield provided by FERPA. A child must now disclose his or her grades/transcript to any parent who is paying for college. However, is always the goal to be able to speak with your child regarding their progress in college without having to get the courts involved.

Divorced parents warring well past the final judgment of divorce are not new. That’s why it is so crucial that you outline with as much detail in your property settlement agreement just how college will be handled when it arises. This will alleviate not only confusion, but possible hurt feelings, arguments and expensive litigation down the road. Try to maintain positive relationships with your children and your ex to the greatest extent possible going forward. Sit down and discuss with your ex and your child their desires regarding schools, and their eligibility for grants, loans and scholarships. Do you wish your child to take out their own loans? Or, will you be solely financially responsible? Ironing out these details sooner rather than later will help you in the future.

If you are getting ready to send your child off to college this fall, or if your child is already in the middle of their college education and you have questions regarding your obligations and rights with respect to paying tuition, we can help you. Contact us today to set up your initial consultation.

Read More

Does the End of School Mean the End of Child Support? Not So Fast!

questions about college tuition costs