Parents dream of the day when their child will walk across the stage to receive a college diploma. But in the case of divorced couples, the mounting costs of higher education—books, room and board, and tuition—can create conflict.
In the best of scenarios, attorney Sophy Raza of Danna McKitrick says parents agree to work together with their children to determine how to plan and save for this major life expense. But in the imperfect world, local lawyers warn that the issue can become a contentious part of a couple’s divorce that must be settled in court.
When today’s divorced parents go to court over college costs in Missouri, the judge orders mom and dad to pay percentages based on their respective incomes and resources, and the child has no financial responsibility, Raza says. However, each parent’s annual share cannot exceed about $10,000—half of the approximately $20,000 in-state tuition, books, and room and board for the University of Missouri.
For divorced parents with kids, the college-funding issue also becomes intertwined with child-support payments, notes Craig Kallen of Kallen Law Firm. The non-custodial parent typically pays child support to the custodial parent, he explains, and once the child turns 18, that support terminates—except if the child is attending full-time college of at least 12 credit hours, then it extends to age 21 in the eyes of the court. “That’s when the student is a junior in college—so it terminates before [he or she] finishes college,” Kallen says, noting financial planning for that final year of school is another issue divorced parents will have to negotiate. For the non-custodial parent, another problem that can arise is related to abatement. “[Child support] changes when the kid goes off to college: The expenses of the custodial parent are less now, so the court will abate the child support for the months the child is away for college.” Non-custodial parents have to ensure they request that abatement from the court, Kallen continues, or they can end up funding more than their share of the child support.
While handling the significant expense of higher-education upfront may seem like a daunting financial burden, putting off college-cost-planning can often be even more costly, notes Kirk Stange of Stange Law Firm. When the children’s higher education expenses are not part of the parents’ original divorce decree, the couple will have to return to court for a modification. “If the kids are young, some parents don’t want to put it in the agreement. Then, what ends up happening is that one parent has to come back to do a modification later when the kids are in their teens,” Stange explains. “The pro to putting it in the original agreement is that you avoid a modification down the line.” But some parents argue that college costs and parents’ income levels may change over time, or that the child may even decide not to attend college, he adds.
Amid all the positive and negative factors related to college-cost-planning, the smartest plan of action is to save for higher education ahead of time, Kallen says. And to ensure that fund can only be used for college, a clause can be placed in the divorce decree that indicates those savings are locked away exclusively for higher education, Stange notes.
Overall, the process of funding college involves a complicated formula for any family of divorce, Kallen emphasizes. “You need to deal with this during your divorce with your lawyers, or one parent can really get the short end of the stick. Seek legal counsel to help navigate the waters.”