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How Divorce May Impact College Funding  Thumbnail

How Divorce May Impact College Funding

If you and your partner are contemplating divorce and have children, you may be surprised to learn that college funding might be required as part of your divorce settlement.   In Massachusetts, support may continue after a child is 18.   Between ages 18-21, the court can make orders regarding maintenance, support, and education.  These are separate orders – a parent may be ordered to help pay for college with or without being ordered to pay child support.   

Support during college is discretionary and limited.  A judge has discretion in whether or not to order child support or college contributions for an adult child, but it is not guaranteed.  The court will consider various factors, including cost of post-secondary education; the child’s aptitudes; the child’s living situation; the child and parent’s available resources; and the availability of financial aid.  

  • For a parent to be ordered to pay child support or college expenses, the adult child must live at home with a parent and depend on that parent financially.   The court will NOT order a parent to pay support is the child is living independently – physically and financially.
  • The court can also make support and education orders when a child is younger than 23 years old, lives at home, is financially dependent and is in an educational program.  This EXCLUDES educational costs beyond an undergraduate degree.

To best serve your child(ren), discuss your respective expectations for their education.  For example, only public universities or private?  Only the lowest cost or more expensive?  Clarify goals for your children’s educations and address each child’s needs separately.  

Separation agreements should outline whether both parents must agree on choice of college; whether or not the parent paying child support is allowed to counter a child’s choice to attend a private college; the maximum amount each parent must pay; and how 529 plan funds can be used.   Gaps in the agreement might leave open the possibility that one of you, based on financial ability, will have to pay towards private college regardless of preference.  

Expenses to be paid by each parent should be clearly outlined (tuition, room & board, and miscellaneous expenses), along with any expenses that will be the responsibility of the child.  Include how many semesters or quarters of support will be paid.  Note any conditions for payment, such as minimum GPA, attendance, taking certain courses, or attending a certain school.

The 2018 MA guidelines state no parent can be required to pay more than 50% of the cost of an undergraduate degree (tuition, fees, and room and board) for an in-state resident at the U MA Amherst).   But there may be an exception to this is if the court finds a parent can pay a greater amount.  It is up to the judge whether parents are required to help pay for their adult child’s higher education expenses and how much each parent must contribute.  Judges have a great deal of leeway in deciding how much each parent should contribute.  Parents can be ordered to split the cost 50/50; divided in proportion to each parent’s income or divided in thirds (1/3 to each parent and 1/3 to the student).

A final note:  The custodial parent can make or break financial aid eligibility.  Remarriage after divorce can sometimes blow up financial aid eligibility.  It is important to understand how the financial aid process works to maximize need-based and merit-based aid for college, regardless of marital status.  But it is even more complex when students of divorced parents apply for aid.  

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Best regards,

Janet Rhodes Friedman, CFP®, CDFA®, MBA



Financial Planning Solutions, LLC (FPS) is a Registered Investment Advisor. FPS provides this blog for informational and educational purposes only. Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, tax, or legal advice. FPS only renders personalized advice to each client after entering into an advisory relationship. Information herein includes opinions and forward-looking statements that may not come to pass. Information is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Information is at a point in time and subject to change without notice. Such information may not be independently verified by FPS. Please see important disclosures link at the bottom of this page.

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