How Do Divorced Parents Pay for College?

Does Child Support Include College Tuition?

When parents separate or divorce, they have many things to discuss. If their children are minors, they will need to develop a parenting plan, visitation schedules, custody agreement, and child support agreement. These documents will look different for every family and must be drafted to meet each family's specific needs.

When establishing custody and support, the best interests of the child are the first and foremost priority. After that, the courts are concerned with ensuring that each parent has adequate and appropriate parenting time with their children.

Often a contentious topic for parents, child support typically refers to the ongoing financial contributions of the non-custodial parent to cover the minor child’s living expenses. Child support can be used for several child-related costs, including housing, food, clothing, medical expenses, tutoring costs, and more.

In California, both parents are required to contribute financially to their children's care and upbringing while they are minors. However, parents are not legally obligated to pay for their child's college expenses.

Review California's Child Support Services site to learn more about how child support works.

How to Plan for Your Child's College Expenses During Your Divorce

Though parents are not legally required to fund their child's university expenses, many parents plan to pay for all or part of their child's tuition and/or living expenses while they are in college. This plan can be thrown into disarray when parents decide to divorce. Divorce or separation can have a significant impact on a couple's finances. It may no longer be clear how the child's college expenses will be covered. Below, we provide some tips on how to begin planning for college while you're still going through your divorce.

Negotiate College Expenses as Part of Your Parenting Plan

Because neither parent is legally required to pay for college, it is recommended that you discuss future college expenses while working out your parenting plan. If college costs are included as part of your parenting plan, it is potentially enforceable if, when the time comes, the responsible parent does not want to follow through. When you have more than one child, make sure each child's college needs are addressed individually in the parenting plan.

Looking at both parents' financial situation is crucial to figuring out what you each are reasonably able to contribute. This may be the full college expenses for four years, or it may be a portion, and the child will be responsible for the rest. In some situations, the higher-earning parent may become solely responsible for the child's college tuition. Other parents agree to share the expense, with each parent paying a specific portion.

Negotiating the cost of college for your children can be incredibly difficult. You may benefit from working with a mediator on this issue. If you decide to go this route, ensure that you secure your own lawyer to represent you during mediation. A mediator is an objective third-party that does not represent either parent. You must have someone there protecting your best interests.

Research How Much College Will Cost

While you cannot 100% predict the exact cost of attending college, or even where your child might go, you can do some research on what the average cost of attending college will be. Having a better understanding of the cost of a college education can help you feel more prepared when going into negotiations with your child's other parent. Make sure to look at both state and private universities. If you anticipate that your child might like to attend college elsewhere, you may also wish to investigate how much out-of-state tuition costs.

If your child is old enough, have a conversation with them and ask them about their plans. Do they want to attend a four-year university, or do they have plans to attend a vocational program? Does your child plan to attend graduate school, and if so, will you and your former spouse be providing support for that as well?

Understand All of Your Child's Financial Aid Options

Many students pay for college through various financial aid programs, scholarships, work-study programs, loans, and help from their families. Consider where your child might attend and spend some time reviewing their websites to get a sense of each school's financial aid options and eligibility requirements. If your child is in high school, reach out to the school's college counselor to determine what college preparation resources are available to your child through the high school.

The government offers many students financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It's important to remember that with programs like these, the parents' income will impact their eligibility. Similarly, your custody arrangement may also have an impact on whether or not they qualify for aid. Even remarrying after divorce can affect whether or not a child qualifies for federal financial aid.

Students will have to demonstrate their financial need, and the expected family contribution (EFC) will be factored into this. Often the parent's EFC is based on the custodial parent's income. You can review the basic eligibility criteria for the FAFSA on the federal website.

To learn how the government determines how much aid a student will receive, including how EFC is calculated, click here.

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