For most couples getting divorced, their children are their single highest priority. Child support and child custody are their immediate concerns. When you go through the court system in California and in other states, the judge applies a formula to determine the amount of child support. Courts consider income as well as the tax effects of the parties’ various income. They then apply the state mandatory child support guidelines. If this decision goes in front of a judge, he or she has to follow the guidelines to the letter. If you do it on your own, there is flexibility to reach a more creative and equitable solution for your unique situation.
What couples don’t often consider are expenses which seem to be a long way off such as the costs of a college education. This can be one of the single most expensive mistakes couples make if it gets overlooked.
College expenses can be something the parties agree on, but the California Family Code does not require this. The Family Code is only concerned about what happens to your minor children until they reach age 18, or are no longer high school students. This is when child support ends.
Courts will not order parents to pay for college unless the parties agree. Most of my clients don’t choose to include orders in their marital settlement agreements relating to payments for college. You can imagine the problems if something goes wrong. What if the time comes, and you can’t afford to pay for college due to unemployment or disability – but you have a court order that says you must pay? If this occurs, your own child might have a legal cause against you. That’s not exactly healthy for family relationships.
Most of my clients opt out of having a college expenses provision included in their divorce decree. Sometimes, the parties agree to contribute to a 529 college savings fund, which has certain tax advantages.
Have a conversation about college funding as part of your divorce
Whatever you decide, it’s important to have a conversation about college funding. Sometimes, this might mean you agree to meet at a future time, closer to your child’s decision about college. The choice of college can be crucial. What if one parent is paying for college, and the other is encouraging the child to go to a private, out-of-state college that’s not necessarily affordable?
Simply because the family court isn’t going to order a couple to do something in the future doesn’t mean the expense isn’t going to come up. Discussing everyone’s individual expectations is crucial. Parents and their children may have different values about the college choice and the college expenses.
We recently worked with divorcing parents who had completely opposite opinions about college financing. One parent said, “I had to work and scrimp and save and take out loans, and I appreciated my college education more for it.” The other parent said, “No, this is our responsibility as parents to take care of our child’s college education.” This is an important conversation they needed to work through.
It’s often helpful to bring in a mental health professional to work with the parents when they have different values about what’s going to happen with college expenses. That’s exactly what we did, and in the end, the parents were able to reach an agreement.
Get expert advice on college expenses from a financial professional
For practical reasons, couples may also want to confer with a financial professional about their financing options. Does it make sense to set up a 529 account? Are loans or grants practical? What can they truly afford? What is the best vehicle to save for college?
Alternative dispute resolution options such as mediation or Collaborative Practice are ideal when divorcing parents need to work through complex financial decisions which may affect their family in the future, even years into the future. As any parent of a college student will tell you, those years pass by much more quickly than you realize. It’s best to talk now and come up with a plan.
Call on Weber Dispute Resolution for help in starting your family’s conversation about making college possible and practical for your children even after divorce.
READ MORE: How Much Is Child Support In California?