It is graduation season and many teens are graduating from high school and becoming adults. It can be a difficult time saying goodbye to family and friends, transitioning to college, new living arrangements, and possibly moving to a new geographic area. For those children of divorced parents, it can be particularly hard, especially if those children do not have parents who have helped them plan for this next stage in their lives.
Most teens are still financially dependent on their parents and graduation from high school does not change this financial dependency. Even if the child has a job, it is usually not enough to help them support themselves and pay for college.
Some divorces take place when the children are young and it is hard to envision what it will be like when it’s time to plan for high school graduation. The parents plan for child care and focus on how to pay child support and other expenses. Planning for college appears to be so far away. I have seen settlement agreements with vague language about how to handle this when the time comes. Some settlements are silent on the topic.
Other divorces occur when the parents are about to become empty nesters. They may even intentionally wait until the child will be going to college and “will not have to deal with” the divorce. Yet the finances may be in flux and planning for college can become difficult until the issues regarding property division and spousal support are resolved.
What does divorce law state about paying for a child’s expenses or college once the child becomes an adult? It may vary from state to state. In Virginia, child support generally ends when a child graduates from high school, but if the child is not yet 18 at graduation, then child support ends when the child is 19 or graduates, whichever is earlier. The Virginia courts do not have legal authority to order parents to pay for expenses post-emancipation unless there is a written agreement signed by the parties and submitted to the court as a contract (or an unusual situation where the child has special needs). Some states may have authority for a Judge to order payment for college (at some level).
The early adult years may be unpredictable. Once a child becomes an adult there are so many directions the young adult may take. Some go to college, some join the military, some marry, some work, etc. Parents may have different values about who should pay for college. A parent’s approach may have something to do with how that parent was raised and how their parents handled college.
For those states where the court has no authority to order payment for expenses of an adult child, if the parents want to include some obligation in their settlement agreement, it must be contractually clear and thorough because the provision is enforceable but not modifiable by the court, even if there is a change in circumstances. (Of course, the parties can enter a modified contract.)
As a Mediator and Collaborative Divorce Attorney, I have been involved in many cases where the parties want to consider options regarding saving for and/or paying for college and other expenses for a young adult (such as health insurance, unreimbursed health expenses, supplies, etc.)
A few options generated in negotiation are as follows:
- Mandatory contribution to some college savings account;
- Conferring annually to see what can be agreed upon;
- Allocation of certain expenses by percentage (such as 1/3 each parent and child);
- Paying certain expenses pro-rata to income when the time comes;
- Paying a percentage share of tuition only;
- Paying a percentage share of tuition, room, board, and fees with a maximum obligation tied to a certain school with in-state tuition;
- Meeting with a financial planner regularly to discuss financial planning for college or such other post-emancipation expense;
- Using an asset to fund a pre-paid tuition account;
- Using an asset to fund college savings plans; and
- Each borrowing an amount to cover certain expenses.
There are other options and some options can be combined to form another option.
The challenge is planning where the cost is not yet determined, whether to commit contractually when it is not foreseeable what one can afford, having dialogue as divorcing or divorced parents, and having a united message when discussing the plan with the child.
It is already such a stressful time for graduating high schoolers to make decisions about how to spend their time the following year. They need their parents’ input (even if there are limits) so they know what their options are and can make decisions with their parents.
Ideally, the parents use a process such as Mediation or Collaborative Divorce to meet and have open dialogue, with the help of legal and financial professionals. The planning is especially important when the law provides no direction. Every situation is different; yet communications and creative problem solving may be key to helping launch a young adult toward a successful transition.