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How Should Divorced Parents Approach Their Children’s College Tuition?

After parents divorce, they have to make many adjustments to their finances. Money doesn’t go as far, because rather than one household to support, now there are two. Supporting parents can feel unduly burdened, and college expenses can seem like the final straw. Negotiating a college payment plan during or after divorce can be difficult, but there are a few important points to keep in mind:

  • The best interests of the child — This is the standard the court applies when deciding child custody and child support issues. You should also keep this in mind. You might feel that working to pay for college made you appreciate your education more, or you might look at your children’s circumstances and decide they must be free to focus entirely on studies. If you feel your children should bear some of the financial responsibility for college, how do you feel about them graduating with loan debt?
  • What would you have done if you hadn’t gotten divorced? — If you, your spouse and your children had expectations about their higher education before you got divorced, to what extent are you obligated to follow through? You must weigh those feelings against the objective reality of your new financial circumstances.
  • How would a court rule? — New York law allows courts to compel supporting parents to contribute to college costs. The court considers the two factors above plus a host of others: the level of the parents’ education, the parents’ financial resources, the child’s interest and academic potential, the availability of aid, the child’s ability to earn while in school, the relationship between the supporting parent and the child, and any voluntary agreements the parties have made. Understanding what the court could order gives you a starting point for negotiating a voluntary agreement. There is however a growing trend in the Second Department for which the Court’s are not readily obligating parents to pay for these costs.
  • Parties can extend child support beyond age 21 — In New York, supporting parents are obligated until the child reaches 21 years of age, but parties by mutual agreement can extend support obligations until a child finishes college.
  • Offsets of child support are generally allowed for payment of room and board— Supporting parents often feel that if the child is away at college, they shouldn’t have to pay as much to the custodial parent. The prevailing case law in New York provides that to the extent the non custodial parent is contributing to the room and board costs of a child when they are away at school, it is a dollar for dollar reduction in that child’s support. The reason as this is a duplication of housing and food costs.
  • The Court cannot issue an Order directing college unless it is eminent that a child is going to be entering into college – Often, parties want to provide for the college costs of their children, even if they are years away from College. The Court cannot make a determination until a child is about to enter college (which is generally in their senior year of high school). If the child/children are younger, they will likely determine the issue is not “ripe” yet and the parties will need to address this issue on a later date. However, many parties will address and resolve these issues by mutual agreement as they do not wish to return to Court in the future.

Working with an experienced family law attorney, you can often arrive at a reasonable, manageable college payment plan based on your specific circumstances. Contact Jakubowski, Robertson, Maffei, Goldsmith & Tartaglia to schedule a consultation.