When my ex-husband and I agreed to separate and eventually divorce two years later, we thought we had covered all the bases. We discussed and agreed upon who would keep our family residence, and who would keep our vacation home and rental property. We talked about our custody schedule and came up with a routine we felt was fair. Each of us got a substantial amount of time with our kids, and it was something the children were happy with since, at the time, they were older and their social lives were a big part of their world.
Our main goal was to make sure our kids were happy and the transition of going between two homes wasn’t traumatic for them. But, in the process, we left out a very important detail—one that many couples who are deciding to go their separate ways probably don’t even think about.
Who is responsible to pay for your child’s college education should they decide to go, after you divorce?
If you are both going to contribute, how should payments be divvied up?
Since we had one teenager and two tweens at the time of our divorce, you’d think it would have been at the forefront of our minds. College takes a long time to save for, and we had three kids’ futures to consider. But somehow discussing the cost of college got lost in the shuffle.
When this happens, it can make for bigger problems in the future like arguments, misunderstandings, and missing out on opportunities to save or get financial help.
Now our oldest child is approaching the end of his sophomore year of high school, and my ex-husband and I need to get into the details of where the money for college is going to come from. This could take one conversation, or several, but the point is, we are talking about our child’s future and it’s something that needs to happen soon.
We’ve discussed it briefly, and we are both on the same page in thinking we will help our son if he helps himself: he has to contribute too, and we are not going to pay for his entire college education. But neither of us want him to have piles of debt like we did. We also want to save a good amount for our retirement so we don’t have to lean on our children later in life, which would defeat the purpose of paying for their entire college education.
I’m confident we can come to an agreement. We both realize that, even though we couldn’t stay married any longer, our children are the most important thing in our lives, and their happiness, well-being, and future trumps everything.
As I’ve learned more about planning for college when you’re divorced, I’ve discovered that there are some common questions that divorced couples need to ask:
- Should the parent who makes more money pay for more tuition?
- Is it a good plan to split the cost of college in thirds, between parents, the child, and financial aid?
- Should one parent just contribute as much as they can and not even involve the other parent if they aren’t getting along?
- If you started a college fund as a married couple, who should be the one to manage it going forward?
I talked with some divorced folks about how they handled these sensitive subjects and about how they came to an agreement about their child’s college education. The answers and solutions were all over the board.
Mary, a divorced mother of two, said her lawyer gave her some advice on the subject when she divorced. “My lawyer said the two parents should split a third of the cost, rely on grants and scholarships for a third, and have the student take out student loans to pay back for the last third. That’s what my ex and I did, and it worked beautifully and we didn’t have to discuss it over and over. It was a clear plan,” she says.
Tiffany, a divorced mother of one, said she paid whatever she could and told her son “to discuss the rest with his father because I’d already fought too much through the divorce. I didn’t want to fight about who would pay for what in regard to our adult child.”
Kathleen is a divorced mother of one who said she and her ex-husband discussed how they would pay for college during their divorce. “We agreed to pro-rate our income in our settlement agreement. My ex-husband makes four times what I make, and I knew he’d pay more,” she said.
Paige is a divorced mother of three who says she is contributing as much as she can, but her ex-husband doesn’t want his kids to have any student loans to pay back later. “He is paying the rest after my contribution, so they don’t have debt later in life,” she said.
Aimee, a divorced mother of two, has a son leaving for college in the fall. “My ex and I have been saving for his college education for a long time,” she said. “We did the best we could. We have enough to pay for half of his education, and he is going to have to take care of the rest.”
There are so many different ways to split the cost of college that can make the whole process confusing. Many families feel divorce has put them through enough, and figuring out who will pay for college can add to the heartache and stress of your family splitting up. While I do feel lucky that my ex and I are in agreement about most things involving our kids, I realize this isn’t the case for a lot of divorced couples.
I certainly don’t have the answers of what is best for each family, but this is a topic worth discussing, no matter how uncomfortable it is for both parties. It’s also a conversation your child should be involved in. If your child is a young adult, they should know exactly what is expected of them so nothing is sprung on them and their plans can adjust accordingly.
If you need help with asking the right questions, getting your child involved, and saving for college after a divorce, you can also talk to a certified financial planner or college planning specialist to get expert advice.
Ultimately, when two people are talking about sharing the cost of something and they no longer live together, it can be tough. However, if we have the best interests of our child in mind, we ask the tough questions, and we’re really honest about what we’re willing and not willing to do, we can potentially avoid resentment and stress down the road.
If nothing else, it will hopefully help us get through an unsettling conversation.
Need Help with College Planning?
Hi, I’m Brad Baldridge, a college funding specialist and the owner of Taming the High Cost of College.
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You can also check out some of my useful college planning articles and resources below.
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Find out if scholarships are worth your time and a viable option for your student.