When we talk about college expenses, what exactly do we mean by that term? Tuition for attending classes at a college or university is probably the first thing most think about. When considering college expenses, room and board, transportation costs, health insurance, food, rent, and "fun" are all relevant topics to include. All of these aspects of college life can create a costly situation for parents who are in many ways expected to foot the bill for these expenditures- either through taking out student loans in their names or by saving up money and paying cash.
If you are going through a divorce, you may be wondering how your case and decision to separate from your spouse will impact your child's ability to have the same college experience as their peers. In today's blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC, we will discuss this topic in greater detail. Now is the time of year that colleges will send out acceptance letters to students that applied in the fall semester. I can't think of a better time to run through some issues related to college expenses for divorced parents.
What does the law in Texas hold for divorced parents regarding paying for college?
In your reading through past blog posts of the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC, you have likely become familiar with the standard that your family law court or any other family law court would utilize to make decisions regarding issues facing your child: the best interests standard. It is a largely subjective standard that allows judges wide latitude regarding determining what is in your particular child's best interests. A judge would look to your child's physical, emotional and mental needs to make this determination.
Your child's needs are at age seven are different from your child's needs at age 17. That goes without saying. What we do know is that you are only obligated to pay child support for your child through their 18th birthday or their graduation from high school, whichever occurs later. There are no laws on the books in Texas that require you as a divorced parent to pay for college expenses for your child over the age of 18.
Is a college degree in the best interests of your child?
This would seem to be an easy question to answer on its face. We've all heard the various statistics that have been much discussed for a generation about how a college graduate is likely to earn "X" amount of dollars more than a person with only a high school education. In addition to the increased earning potential, college life offers students a chance to grow and develop socially. The College Experience is something that we have all been told is essential to our development as Americans.
What I would offer to you in the year 2019 is that a college degree may not be worth what it once was. Bear in mind that the costs of attending college have increased steadily, and more and more people have shown a willingness to pay for that service. The rub is that the payments being made for tuition and the other college costs have come by and large through the taking out of significant student loans. Both parents and students have taken out loans to facilitate the college experience/educational experience that has been ingrained into our psyches. The result can be disastrous if the debt cannot be repaid due to insufficient return on investment in the form of a good-paying job.
This is the philosophical discussion that a judge and your child may have. The trouble when you consider that your child is the child of a divorce is that your child will likely be over the age of 18 by the time they attend their first days of college. By definition, your child is no longer a "child" as defined by the Texas Family Code. As such, no mandate can be included by a judge in your Divorce Decree that forces you, your ex-spouse, or both of you to pay for your child's college expenses.
A final issue that has become more and more prevalent in our clients and communities around our country is that children remain at home longer than ever before. This puts both parents and children in a unique position. As a parent, you have to continue to support your children in many ways (even if they are only minor costs) as far as providing a roof over their head, food, clothing, etc., if your children decide to continue their education after college rather than enter the workforce. This puts at least a slight strain on your family budget that you may not have anticipated years ago when you went through your divorce.
The other side of the coin is that by remaining at home, your child may not be able to enter the workforce once their education is complete readily. The big question is: if you and your spouse are not yet divorced, how can you take these circumstances into account so that your divorce decree reflects the possibility of these events occurring in your own life?
Anticipate and mediate these issues before it is too late
Suppose you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse are in a financial position where you can pay for your children's college education or anticipate being able to do so. In that case, it is sensible to memorialize this arrangement in your final decree of divorce. Many parties to the divorce will include a section on this agreement in their decree.
My accurate advice would be to not rely on any verbal promises or assurances provided to you by your spouse that they will pay for college (or do anything else, for that matter). This is a nice sentiment, but you need to get that promise into writing as a part of your divorce decree. If you don't do so and your spouse goes back on their word in the future, you will be kicking yourself.
Another consideration that you have to make in this regard is what may be an option today is not an option tomorrow. Consider- what if your spouse remarries quickly as has step-children to support in addition to your child? Maybe that promise is not practical or possible for your spouse, given their new reality. Your best bet is to get this assurance in writing your divorce decree. Next, you can consider what schools your child can reasonably attend without bankrupting you and your spouse. School choice is the factor that students do not think and parents often ignore it in favor of doing what they feel their child "wants."
The bottom line is if you and your spouse can come to a reasonable agreement on future college expenses in mediation. That agreement is inserted in your final decree of divorce; the provision would likely be enforceable should you or your ex-spouse violate that order year down the line if you agree upon a division of cost-sharing or an amount that each of you will be expected to make available for college expenses I cannot conceive of many ways that an agreement of this sort would be determined to be unenforceable.
Finishing up a discussion on college expenses and divorce in tomorrow's blog post
We will pick up on this topic in tomorrow's blog post and continue with the issue we left off with yesterday- child support. In the meantime, if you have any questions for the attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC, don't hesitate to get in touch with us today. We offer free consultations with a licensed family law attorney six days a week. Our office takes a great deal of pride in representing the people who live in our community, and we would be honored to speak to you about your case and answer any questions you may have.