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 that most of us think about. Room and board, transportation costs, health insurance, food, rent, and “fun” are all relevant topics to include when considering college expenses. All of these aspects of college life can create a very expensive situation for parents who are in many ways expected to foot the bill for these expenditures- either through taking out student loans in their own names or by saving up money and paying cash.
If you are going through a divorce then you may be wondering just how your case and decision to separate from your spouse will impact your child’s ability to have the same college experience as his or her 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 in regard to 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 in regard to issues facing your child: the best interests standard. It is a largely subjective standard that allows judges wide latitude in regard to 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.
What your child’s needs are at age 7 are different than what your child’s needs are 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 in time. There are no laws on the books in Texas that require you as a divorced parent to pay for college expenses for your child who is over the age of 18.
Is a college degree in the best interests of your child?
On its face, this would seem to be an easy question to answer. 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 is said to offer 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 acollege 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 costs of college have come by and large through the taking out of significant student loans. Both parents and students have taken out loans in order 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 there being insufficient return on the investment in the form of a good paying job.
This is the philosophical discussion that a judge or you 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 time he or she attends 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 in communities around our country is that children are remaining at home longer than ever before. This puts both parents and children in a unique position. As a parent, you are having to continue to support your children in many ways (even if they are only small 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 small strain in 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 readily enter the workforce once their education is complete. 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
If you and your soon to be ex-spouse are in a financial position where you are able to pay for your children’s college education, or anticipate being able to do so, it is sensible to memorialize this arrangement in your final decree of divorce. Many parties to divorce will include a section on this agreement in their decree.
My real advice would be to not rely on any verbal promises or assurances provided to you by your spouse that he or she will definitely 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 it to get this assurance in writing in your divorce decree. Next, you can consider what schools your child can reasonably attend without bankrupting you and your spouse. School choice is the a factor that students do not consider and parents often times ignore in favor of doing what they feel like their child “wants.”
The bottom line is if you and your spouse are able to come to a reasonable agreement on future college expenses in mediation and that agreement is inserted in your final decree of divorce it is likely that the provision would be enforceable should you or your ex-spouse violate that order years 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 with this topic in tomorrow’s blog post and then continue on with the topic 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 please contact us today. We offer free of charge consultations six days a week with a licensed family law attorney. Our office takes a great deal of pride in representing the people that live in our community and we would be honored to speak to you about your case and to answer any questions that you may have.