College Costs in Virginia Divorce

College is expensive. I know, I know – not exactly rocket science, right? And, especially in my cases where there are older teenage children, my conversations often begin and end on college education and the costs associated with it.

I talk to mothers all the time, and they’re all super concerned about their kids well being and how to ensure that they are as minimally disrupted by the divorce and/or custody case that is going on in the background of their lives as possible.

 

In fact, I’ve given a lot of time to these topics in articles before, both in terms of how parties should plan to share college expenses in their Virginia divorce, and also how child support is impacted when a kid goes away to college.  (Spoiler alert: you probably won’t like what you hear.)

Most moms give a lot of thought to custody and visitation and how to craft provisions specifically so that their children are as well taken care of as they possibly can be. College, and how to share those expenses, is almost always a part of that discussion.

College Expenses and Virginia Law

An important (but unfortunate) truth is that Virginia law does not allow judges to force one or both parties to pay college expenses on behalf of the children. In some states the judges do have this power, but not in Virginia.

So, for practical purposes, what that means for you is that, unless you and your child’s father agree about how to share the college costs, the judge will not be able to order it.

What that means is that if your child’s father says no, he will not participate, there’s nothing at all that I can do to force him to. Since the judge doesn’t have the authority to order it, I can’t even try to push him by setting a motion. We have absolutely no power at all to entice him to sign, if he doesn’t do so out of the goodness of his own heart.

It’s frustrating. I know.

What if I agree to pay a portion of college expenses?

Something that always concerns me is my client’s willingness to overcommit, especially when it comes to the well being of her children. Sure, you can agree to put a certain amount of money towards the child(ren)’s college expenses, and you can ask that he pay a portion, too. But contractually obligating yourself to do something is tricky because then you have to do it.

What if, when your kids go to school, you’ve lost your job? What if your assets are underperforming? What if there’s, like, a global pandemic or something else totally unrealistic and completely sci-fi that we never thought we’d see in our lifetimes?

All that to say that there are a lot of unknowns in any scenario, and I’m always cautious. I don’t want to put my clients in a bad position later on down the line.

And, probably, this is along the lines of the same conversation that your husband is having with his attorney.

You need to be careful, when you’re negotiating a contract, not to over commit. And, since the court can’t make you do this, it might be better to commit the extra money at the time, if you have it, than obligate yourself now, not knowing what your situation might look like then.

What will he do? Will he pay extra if he can at the time, even if he won’t commit to it now? Maybe. But it’s impossible to know. All you can do, in this particular situation, is the best you can do for your kids. You can’t really mandate how or what he’ll do, now or in the future.

My experience? Well, many parents put it in agreements anyway, if they can agree. We do certain things, like limit tuition to a specific dollar amount, or to in-state tuition at a particular university. (I often use William and Mary as a guideline for a maximum amount, since it’s more expensive than some state schools but way less than private school.)

We can even set up 529s and set minimum monthly (or yearly) contributions, if the parents prefer. (Though, if I were you, I’d talk to a tax adviser about this, too.)

Be honest with yourself about what you can afford.

I know we all want to help our kids, and we want them to avoid student loan debt. It’s a huge problem in our country, and it takes many (yours truly included) decades to recover. Some milennials even report now their own student loan debt has stopped them from buying a house, having children, or moving out of their parent’s home. I get it. Believe me, I SO get it. But, also, you can’t bankrupt yourself for their education.

In fact, I’d encourage you to talk to a financial adviser about this as well. You have your own retirement to consider as well, and it won’t really do a whole lot of good to pay for their college to turn around and have to depend on your children to provide your nursing home care, when the time comes. Your own finances should be in a good place before you pay for college, because you may find that you don’t have as much time or ability to save later – and, after all, these are prime years. You’d be doing yourself a disservice not to consider compounding interest and how missing out on that now can work against you later.

Look, I get it. I want to pay for my kids school, too. But you have a lot of competing interests to juggle, and you need to consider advantages and disadvantages before over committing. And, hey, if all you can do is send them to school with some groceries and a pack of beer each semester, then, well, that’s all you can do.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.

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