When you get divorced, you think about whatever is front of mind and plan for it in the future. But when couples have young children, there are so many important milestones they don’t think of because they’re not yet at that stage. Like college.
About 99% of the people that I work with have nothing about who will pay for college in their Judgment of Divorce. Many don’t even realize that there is nothing that requires a parent to pay for their children’s higher education.
Put It In Writing
In Michigan, unless you designate something in your legal document, your Judgment of Divorce, that is specific about paying for college costs, there is no default and no legal recourse. In the state of Michigan, child support ends at 18 or when your child finishes high school.
Other states require support for longer. For instance, in New Jersey, parents are obligated to cover their kids until 21. But regardless of the law, few kids are really grown, flown and launched at 18. And, few qualify for significant loans to afford higher education – which means, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll have to borrow yourself to send them to school.
If you specify in writing what will happen – for instance, both parents contributing to 529 plans every month until the children become of age, or the parents agreeing to split all college costs – then it is enforceable.
However, many parents do not want to commit to college costs (which are HUGE!) when they’re already covering child support and regular daily expenses. Many people are happy to contribute but may not want to be legally held to doing so.
Anything you agree to in the divorce process, in the Judgment of Divorce, is legally binding.
So few people put a specific number in their agreement if they are worried that their financial situation may change down the road. Only very financially secure individuals should get specific.
Attorneys can opt for divorcing spouses to write an intention paragraph in their Judgment, like: we agree to meet every year and review our finances and decide any agreed upon contributions to college accounts.
Save Your Money
I tell parents all the time that the more money they spend on professionals like me and attorneys and going to court, the less money they have for their children’s savings for college. By not working together on co-parenting, they are in essence setting their kids up in a way that makes it challenging to move forward. Use your resources wisely.
Think about how the $180 rate they might pay me could grow if contributed to a college savings plan instead!
College Is Expensive
Parents should also be aware of what is realistic when it comes to college costs.
Children from families in the middle income range will qualify for minimal merit money and subsidized loans from the government. Which means, they either take out unsubsidized loans (which end up compounding and becoming astronomical) or the parents must take out loans on their home or income to pay for college.
Most kids will never get a full ride to play baseball or because of their good grades. Many kids get good grades these days!!
Small, private schools bestow big scholarship money, but they also charge $60-70,000 per year for tuition!
These days, college costs between $25-40,000 per year for most students for tuition and housing. That does not include pizza money, toiletries and other sundry expenses. So, the earlier you can start saving towards college, the better for everyone. I know of no summer employment that will allow a college student to save six figures for four years of higher ed.
Start Your Kids Off Right
The American Dream includes a huge heap of debt. And nowadays, a bachelor’s degree only takes you so far. Many careers require a master’s degree to advance.
How parents work together matters a lot, to set their children up for success when they leave home. Some dedicate annual bonuses to camp or college costs. Others agree to contribute monthly to a college savings plan, but leave it to each parent to decide what they can do as their income allows.
An easy way to do this is to apply the same split as you followed for extracurricular activities and out-of-pocket medical expenses. These conversations should begin as early as possible – not when the kid turns 16 and college is around the corner!
And of course, don’t involve the kids in this conversation. It’s not fair to put them in the middle, having to go back and forth between parents, asking who’s paying for what.
When it’s time to send them off, specify who’s buying sheets, blankets, dorm fridge, shower shoes, and more. The worst thing is showing up on move-in day with two of everything and none of something!
Ultimately, when you work together, you make life easier for your kids – who are already going through all the normal emotions and challenges of leaving home and becoming adults. Don’t add to their burden by not getting along!