Divorcing Parents and College Costs

Divorcing Parents and College Costs by Susan Ingram

{3:30 minutes to read}

One of the most challenging issues for parents who have college-age children is how to handle the costs of their college education. This is a subject that has become more complicated in recent years as the cost of a college education continues to rise significantly. Estimated costs for yearly tuition and room and board for a state-run school are $20,000. Those same costs at a private college are typically anywhere from $45,000 to $80,000 or more.

A recent article in the NY Times on college debt highlights a shift that is occurring as parents try to help their children pay increased college expenses. As the students have reached the maximum they can borrow under the federal loan program (currently limited to $31,000), parents are themselves taking on more of their children’s college debt.

This is a difficult subject even for parents who have an intact marriage and are getting along. Just imagine how fraught it can be when parents are in the process of getting divorced.

I had a discussion recently with my clients, Sarah and Ed, who came to me to mediate their divorce. They have a daughter, Melanie, age 22, who graduated from college last year, and a son, James, who at age 17 has one more year of high school before he attends college. Our discussion highlighted some of the issues that need to be addressed with regard to college debts.

Obviously, Sarah and Ed had already made certain decisions with respect to Melanie. She had obtained federal student loans each year, which were co-signed by one or the other parent. Ed had co-signed for 3 of those years and Sarah had co-signed for one year, which meant that should Melanie run into problems paying off these debts, Ed was fully responsible for 3/4 of the total debt while Sarah was only responsible for 1/4.

It was my job to help them understand what legal obligations already existed based on their decisions so far. The parents indicated that their intent was for each of them to be responsible 50/50 for the entire 4 years of loans (no matter who had co-signed the original loan). So, while legally the lender could collect the entire amount of the debt from the co-signer alone, the language I included in their settlement agreement obligated each parent to pay 50% of the loans, as they intended.

As for James, the discussion prompted his parents to agree that Ed would co-sign for all 4 years, but they would each still be responsible for 50% of the total costs.

Decisions that parents make about their children’s college debts can have long term, and sometimes devastating repercussions. The mediation process gives parents the opportunity to explore and articulate their choices with regard to their liability for their children’s educational future.

One response on “Divorcing Parents and College Costs

  1. Scott Gibney

    Good article Susan. The college admissions process and paying for the exorbitant cost of a four year degree can be challenging in any situation. However, for divorced parents it is especially critical that clear, transparent communications start as early as possible. I advise parents to work together to set parameters around the specific colleges to apply to, an upper limit on the cost of the education, as well as how much debt that each parent (and student) might be willing to assume. These are important factors to consider BEFORE a student begins the application process. College planning can be a difficult topic but addressing the issues upfront will provide a less stressful situation for the parents and student.

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