College Expenses in Virginia Custody Cases

One thing to remember about custody and visitation cases in Virginia (and everywhere else) is that you’re playing a long game. So many parents get wrapped up in the next court hearing and tie all their hopes and dreams on it, when, in reality, contested cases usually play out over years and years of hearings.

In some ways, that’s not an optimistic thing to say, but I don’t mean it that way. And it doesn’t have to be that way, it’s just that, in the most heavily contested cases, it can be. I say that, not to draw a dispiriting picture, but to remind you that your strategy so should see far down the line, and should be adaptable to reflect not just your priorities today, but those same priorities years down the line.

It’s not just about your first grader, today. It’s about your fifth grader. Your eighth grader. Your high schooler. Your college student.

How do you get from where you are now – with your little first grader – to college? How do you navigate the complexities of coparenting over the long term?

There’s not one answer; custody and visitation cases can look dramatically different from family to family. I don’t know anything about you or your case, and I’m not here to give you specific advice about what your long game should look like to you. Your long game might have any number of specific priorities, and you should definitely start considering them and working on a plan with an attorney if you’re headed towards litigation.

Today, my goal is just to make a point about college expenses.

In Virginia, there is no rule that requires parents to pay for college expenses. Child support orders stay in place until the child turns 19 or graduates high school, whatever comes first. There is no support beyond 19 or high school graduation. There is no provision under Virginia law that requires parents to share college expenses. None.

He is under absolutely no obligation to pay for college. Do parents sometimes enter into agreements where they specifically agree to cover certain costs? Yes. Can we MAKE him agree to those provisions? Absolutely not, and the court can’t, either, since there’s absolutely no provision under the law that requires him to agree to such a provision.

The only reason that parents agree to these provisions is because they believe it’s best for their children. I have a lot of feelings about these kinds of provisions, and of the wisdom of my clients agreeing to them too – because, oftentimes, these provisions are mutual (he’ll pay 50% if she pays 50%, and, without a crystal ball, how do we know where any of them will be when college time comes?). But a LOT of my clients are very concerned about college expenses and about how to get their child’s father to agree to pay for at least a portion of them.

Why do parents agree to pay college expenses?

Because they love their kids. Because they want the best for their kids.

As a mom, I totally get it – and I’m sure you do, too. But how do you make sure dads love their kids?

…You let them have parenting time.

Look, I get it. I actually just wrote an article the other day about moms who think that they’re the best ones to care for their kids. And I’m a mom, too, so I feel it on a personal level, too. I can understand that certain dads shouldn’t have time with their kids – dads who are abusers, who are addicted, or whatever – but that’s probably the exception, and not the rule.

The only way to get money for college – whether by agreement or out of the goodness of his heart – is to appeal to his sense of responsibility for the kids. That’s going to be heightened by the level of his involvement with them.

This is assuming, of course, that he has the means to pay for some or all of college, and it’s only one of the things to consider. But it’s important to remember, too, that this comes directly from his involvement with the kids.

Custody and visitation cases are HARD. Navigating coparenting relationships is hard. And I don’t want you to fixate on my words and imagine some ideal that won’t work for your family and feel bad, but I also don’t want you to fail to think about this as a long game and miss out on opportunities for your children because of it.

Take what works for you, discard what doesn’t – but also remember that you’re making big choices as part of a long game that can have a real impact on your kids. We all want to do the best we possibly can by our children, and I know that whatever choices you make will be made with them in mind – but, as an attorney, I think I often see ahead with more clarity than my clients do. I have seen this work out (and not work out) in a lot of cases, and just want to offer you the wisdom that I can so that you can make the best choices, both now and over the long term.

For more information, to request a copy of our custody book, or to discuss your case one-on-one with one of our experienced custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.