Without another agreement in place, the primary custodial parent is responsible for college expenses. More specifically, the custodial parent must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) when their child applies to colleges and universities.
The non-custodial parent may choose to contribute, but they do not have to. If you did not include a plan for college expenses in your divorce decree or create a college support agreement, the court cannot order the non-custodial parent to help pay for college.
What About Child Support and Alimony?
Spousal support and child support are considered as part of the custodial parent’s household income. Keep in mind, however, that most child support agreements end when the child reaches 18 or 21 years of age.
The office of Federal Student Aid does not require the non-custodial parent to contribute, but all contributions (from all sources) must be included on the FAFSA. Some private colleges and universities require an additional form from the non-custodial parent.
Do Stepparents Have to Contribute?
Yes. If the custodial parent has remarried, both spouses’ incomes will be included on the FAFSA and used to calculate the family’s expected contribution.
The office of Federal Student Aid considers a stepparent’s income as part of the custodial parent’s household income. The agency expects part of that income to be used toward a child’s educational expenses, but parents may always choose not to contribute – unless they are bound by a college support agreement (which is different from a child support agreement).
In short, the FAFSA considers the custodial parent’s household income, and a stepparent is part of a custodial parent’s household.
College Support Agreements
To avoid the question of, “who pays for college when parents are divorced,” parents can create a college support agreement during their divorce.
In this agreement, you and your co-parent can specify:
- Who is responsible for the college expenses?
- What constitutes college expenses – will you include money for tuition and mandatory fees alone or consider living expenses, textbooks, and other costs, as well?
- Are there any restrictions on which colleges or universities your child can attend?
- How much will each parent pay?
- How many semesters of support will you and your co-parent provide?
- Is there an age limit on the support?
- Will your child continue receiving support if they fail to meet certain conditions, or will they need to get good grades and attend classes to receive financial support?
- Are there annual caps on how much each parent will pay?
Most parents calculate tuition and fees based on a state college and use this figure to create their agreement. For example, each parent may agree to pay 50% of the tuition at a state college or whichever educational institution their child chooses to enroll in (whichever is cheaper). This way, the expected contributions are clear, and you and your child have some flexibility to make the best choice(s) when the time comes.
California courts will uphold college support agreements, but they usually will not get involved in educational expenses not covered by the agreement.
Another question to consider is whether you and your co-parent will pay the school directly, pay your child, or if one parent will pay the other? Another option is to set up a college savings account and cap your contributions at a certain amount.
College Savings Accounts
According to Finaid:
“Section 529 prepaid tuition plans and section 529 college savings plans are especially popular vehicles for funding the college education of children of divorced parents, as they permit the non-custodial parent to limit their financial obligation by prepaying for a set percentage of college costs.”
Instead of calculating the tuition for a specific school, each parent could agree to invest a certain amount of money in the child’s college savings plan. Alternatively, parents can purchase units of credits at a particular college with a prepaid tuition plan.
Generally, parents prefer college saving plans because they are usually insured and do not limit children to particular colleges or universities. Students may withdraw up to $10,000 per year (without tax penalties) to pay for tuition, mandatory fees, and room and board at any college or university.
Investing in a 529 plan also offers each parent special tax benefits.
The only real downside of college savings accounts is that the money in those accounts must be included on the FAFSA and could reduce the amount of financial aid your child receives.
Still, if you and your co-parent can afford to save for your child’s future, you should do so. Maintaining a college savings plan can help you avoid disputes while giving your child the resources and flexibility they need to pursue their educational goals.
Planning for College During Divorce
If you and your spouse have children and are considering divorce, you need to choose an attorney who will help you plan for college during the legal proceedings.
At TRABOLSI | LEVY | GABBARD LLP, we have two Board Certified Family Law Specialists and over a century of collective experience, so we are uniquely qualified to help you meet your goals.
With us, clients always come first, and we will listen carefully to your concerns to help set you and your child(ren) up for a successful future.