This summer, many first-year college students are making their final decisions on what school they will attend, signing up for classes, and looking forward to the excitement of attending university for the first time. While going off to college is a right of passage for many young adults, it is not without its stressors, not the least of which is how to cover the ever-increasing cost of a college education.
It is not uncommon for parents to help their children with their college expenses. However, if you and your child's other parent are divorced, coordinating this can be challenging. Unlike couples who are still married, you and your former spouse no longer have shared finances, and determining who will pay for what and how requires a lot of communication and coordination.
Below we look at whether parents are legally required to pay for their adult children's college expenses and how many divorced parents pay for college. Keep reading to learn more.
Are Parents Legally Required to Pay for College in Virginia?
Generally speaking, in Virginia, a parent's child support obligations end once the child reaches the age of 18. Child support obligations are outlined by the Code of Virginia § 20-124.2. There are few situations in which a parent may continue being financially responsible for their child after 18, including the child still being in high school or situations where the child is mentally or physically disabled and unable to support themselves or live independently.
However, college attendance is not included as a reason to extend a parent's legal obligation to support a child once they are an adult. There is currently no law that allows the courts to compel a parent to pay for their child's college expenses. However, if you and your child's other parent have a written agreement that one or both of you will pay for your child's college expenses, the courts may be able to enforce it. In function, these agreements are similar to child support agreements and marital agreements.
Drafting Legal Agreements for College Expenses
It is not uncommon for divorced or separated parents to draft and sign a written agreement regarding who will be responsible for their future college expenses. If you and your co-parent are considering establishing a legal agreement about your child's post-secondary education, it is important that you work with an attorney.
The agreement should:
- Be clear and detailed
- Outline each parent's responsibilities and how they will be fulfilled
- Explain what expenses are to be covered (such as tuition, textbooks, room and board, etc.)
- Identify any conditions or limitations to the agreement (such as GPA requirements for the child or whether you're only willing to pay for in-state tuition)
- Include any time limit or sunset clauses that affect the agreement (such as requiring the child to start and/or finish college by a certain age)
It is important to note that these agreements, like many other legal agreements, are potentially open to modification should a parent or the child's circumstances change. For example, just as a child support order may be modified if one parent suffers a significant and lasting change in income, so too can agreements about a parent's obligation to pay for a child's college expenses.
When dealing with legal agreements regarding college expenses, you should always work with a skilled lawyer like ours at Malinowski Hubbard, PLLC. Whether you are looking for help drafting an agreement or you already have one in place and need it modified or enforced, our attorneys are prepared to help.
How Do Divorced Parents Pay for College?
So, how do divorced parents pay for their shared children's college expenses? For every family, planning for college will look different, especially if you are going through a divorce. The age of your children, where you live, and your child's future goals will all impact how you approach college planning. Below we review a few common methods that parents can consider when figuring out the right college planning method for their family.
Make Provisions for College in Your Parenting Plan or Custody Agreement
No matter your child's age, you should consider making provisions for their college education when developing your custody, child support, and parenting plans. Custody, child support, and parenting plans are all completed during the divorce and custody process and outline a wide range of parenting matters, from visitation schedules to how important medical decisions will be made and by whom.
Things to consider when including college expenses in your parenting plan or custody agreement:
- Your current financial capacity to cover college expenses
- You and your former partner's earning potential and/or career plans
- How many children you have
- How old your children are
- Other financial obligations you may have
- How any college savings will be managed, and by whom
- How contributions to college savings will be made
It is also important to remember that a lot can change after a divorce, and you want to make sure you are not over-committing financially. Parents should consider speaking with a financial planner while making college provisions in their custody agreement and/or parenting plan. Working with a financial expert in addition to your attorney can help you develop a college savings plan that will serve your family in the long term.
Research the FAFSA & Scholarship Opportunities
Depending on how old your child is, you may not yet be aware that the federal government provides financial aid to millions of college-bound students every year. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that must be filled out each year and is used to determine what types of financial aid a student is eligible for. Once the FAFSA is submitted, the student will receive an aid report outlining the various types and amounts of financial assistance offered. Many families use this aid report to help them select which college their student will attend, as not every college will provide the same amount of aid.
Other financial aid opportunities that might be available include:
- Work-study programs
- Student loans
If you are going through a divorce or are already divorced, it is worth looking into the types of scholarship and aid opportunities available at local universities to help you with your financial planning. Though this can change each year, if your child is older or already in high school, you can get a good idea of what types of aid they may be eligible for when the time comes. Doing this research will also help you determine how your and your former spouse's income will affect the amount and type of aid available to your child.
To learn more about federal financial aid eligibility requirements, review the Federal Student Aid website.
Set Up a College Fund
As part of planning for their child's college career, many parents elect to set up a college fund or savings account specifically for college expenses. There are several ways to do this, including tax-advantaged options like 529 plans. A savings account, trust, or other types of financial accounts can allow parents to contribute to their child's college expenses over time and as they are able to. You can also set up accounts to enable other family members to contribute to your child's college fund.
Setting up a dedicated savings account is a good first step for parents who want to get started right away but haven't yet decided on the best method of college planning for their family. Once you and your coparent have figured out which type of college savings account will be most beneficial for your child, you can transfer the savings into the new fund.
There are also new products and services on the market that are designed to help teach teens about finances and get them directly involved in saving for their college expenses. Depending on the age and maturity of your child, you may wish to involve them in the college savings process.
Consult with Your Lawyer
The sooner you start thinking about college planning, the better. This is especially true if you are going through a divorce. However, depending on the age of your children, you may not know where to start when tackling this difficult topic. In situations like these, your lawyer is a great resource.
Make sure to specifically ask your attorney about how you can incorporate college planning into your custody and support negotiations. A skilled lawyer like ours at Malinowski Hubbard, PLLC, will be able to use their experience and knowledge to help you figure out the best way to address college planning while going through a divorce.
Are you concerned about how you will handle your child's college expenses post-divorce? Schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys today.