We talked a little bit about college expenses last week, but I had a conversation with another attorney in my office about it and felt like there was still more to say.
In Virginia, there is no provision for child support to be paid after a child turns 19 or graduates from high school. For special needs children, child support can be extended past that point, but, even then, it’s a bit challenging and doesn’t happen automatically.
But in the case of non-special needs kids, there’s nothing specific that requires or allows the court to award child support or any other kind of support designed to help college aged children. I say ‘children,’ but, legally, college kids are adults. Under the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, ‘children’ become adults when they turn 18, and, as a result, are no longer ‘juveniles’ under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
So, when it comes to college expenses, barring some kind of agreement between the parties, there’s nothing the court can do to force either or both parents to pay for college.
There are really only two options here: either the parents reach an agreement about how they’ll share college expenses, or they don’t.
Agreements between coparents regarding college expenses
Many moms want their separation agreements or custody agreements to include a provision about college expenses. A big part of that is because they want to KNOW that they have money coming in for college, and, since the court doesn’t have the authority to do it, they need to reach an agreement with their child’s fathers in order for this to happen.
One concern about these types of provisions is a big one: its around the wisdom of actually agreeing to share college expenses at all, under any circumstances. Most of the time, these provisions are entered into years ahead of time. The parties don’t have a crystal ball. Most of the provisions require the coparents to share the obligation of college expenses. It’s not necessarily 50/50, but sometimes is. Maybe dad can afford it. But can mom? Is she grasping at straws in an attempt to nail dad down to something? Would she put herself in a difficult financial position in order to secure college money for her child(ren)? Is that really smart?
When our clients insist on including these provisions, we usually recommend putting specific provisions in place that limit the mom’s responsibility – limiting the expense, for example, to a certain percentage of the cost of one year of tuition at an in-state public university in Virginia, and limiting the amount of things that the parents can be required to pay for to specific, enumerated expenses.
Cases where the coparents don’t reach an agreement about college expenses
We’re walking a fine line here. Do we educate people about the issues related to getting college expenses in an agreement? If we admit that we have no authority to get them entered by the judge, does that mean that fewer and fewer fathers will be willing to include them in agreements at all? (And, a related discussion – is that even a bad thing? As we already discussed, these provisions can be kind of risky when you don’t know what your personal financial situation will be like in a few years time.)
In general, one of the best ways to get dads to pay for college is by facilitating the relationship between the kids and dad. After all, why would parents pay for college – except that they love and support their kids, and want them to get ahead in life?
Of course, there are other reasons parents might want to pay for college, too. If their socioeconomic standing is such that they want to be seen to provide that level of support for their children, that’s definitely a reason; so, too, is defining your sense of success based on the reflected success of your children.
But, mostly, parents pay for college out of love and support. And, according to Attorney Lori Michaud, who I recently discussed this issue with, there’s lots of reasons to do that:
“There are lots of reasons to do your best to foster the relationship between child and dad – most of which occur long before the kids reach college age, such as:
– a minute of peace to yourself regularly while the kids are with dad;
– the freedom to go out of town every once in a while without kids in tow;
– the security of knowing the kids will be ok even if something were to happen to you — because they have a solid relationship with their other parent;
– the security that kids get from knowing that they are loved and have two parents that love them;
– the opportunity for your kids to develop a sense of themselves in relationship to someone other than you. Having a positive relationship with a father has been shown to help both girls and boys to develop good self-esteem;
– there may be many things kids “want” but do not need that dad can provided them with if they maintain a good relationship – even if it is primarily to show up mom! While frustrating for mom, it is not necessarily a bad thing for the kids to have their desires met!”
Even under the best circumstances, coparenting is a challenge. So, too, is knowing what the best route to take is when it comes to some future event, like college. Most moms would say that they really want to secure that support from their child’s father, and it makes sense to include a provision about college expenses in an agreement. It also creates additional complications.
Ultimately, in any family law case, the individual client is in the driver’s seat. Though we may warn about agreements that include provisions for college expenses, if the client’s ultimate goal is to get one included, we’ll draft one. We can talk about all the specific limitations of using certain language, or of how to put together a provision for funding a 529 account and managing distributions from that account once college time comes.
We can also talk about alternatives, in the event that he won’t agree to include one (or we decide that, in your situation, it’s best to leave it out). It’s important to consider your level of financial security as well, and whether you’ll be able to meet the obligations that you’d impose on him as well. If you put in a ‘as long as we both can afford it’ clause, what you’re trying to accomplish is basically lost anyway – you’d do just as well to not include it, in many situations.
It is important to remember that, just because he doesn’t actually agree to pay for college in the separation agreement doesn’t mean that he won’t! It’s not like, if this provision isn’t in place, he absolutely won’t pull out his checkbook when the time comes. There’s nothing stopping him from helping to pay for college.
Establishing a solid coparenting relationship can help. In fact, it may be one of the best things you can do to help make sure that your child’s father helps fund college for your kids.
For more information, to schedule a consultation, or to request a copy of our custody book for Virginia moms, give us a call at 757-425-5200.