College is more expensive than it’s ever been, and experts believe those numbers will only continue to rise. Married parents often assume they’ll pay for tuition together when the time comes, but what happens when those same parents get divorced? In an ideal scenario, they’ve carved out a clear plan in writing. Otherwise, they’ll have to rely on state law or each other’s goodwill.
When parents get divorced, there are a lot of things to think about. Where will the children live? Who will get them on holidays? Who will pick them up from football practice and pay for their braces?
Many of the issues that arise during a divorce are ones that are urgent in that season of life, so they tend to get resolved quickly. Others, including discussions about college tuition, often get put on the back burner. After all, if your child is only 10 years old, there’s time to figure all that out…right? Well, not necessarily.
Create a written plan for tuition payments in divorce proceedings
Every family’s dynamic is different, so college tuition disputes can unfold in a number of ways. However, a common scenario is that the custodial parent is left to figure out how to pay for college without any help from the non-custodial parent.
There are some states (Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Washington) that give courts the authority to order the non-custodial parent to help pay for their child’s college expenses – but that should be your last resort, not your Plan A.
Instead of relying on state law to force your ex-spouse to help pay tuition when the time comes, the best thing you can do is to create a detailed plan during the divorce process that outlines how college costs will be paid (considering not only tuition, but also room and board and other fees). This might be in the divorce decree, or it might be a separate contract signed by the two of you and reviewed by a lawyer.
“There should be a document in which you specify college support. Some states allow it as part of the divorce decree and others don’t, so you should speak to a lawyer in your state,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized expert on financial aid, scholarships, and student loans.
Whether the details are in the divorce decree or in another official document, they need to be as specific as possible, according to Kantrowitz.
“You need to specify the percentage that each person pays and what that number is based on. Is it based on an in-state public college, or is it based on any college your child chooses? You also need to specify what happens with any college savings accounts such as 529 plans. Will those funds count as part of one person’s contributions? If the child wins a scholarship, how does that money get deducted? Will both parents be involved in the college selection process?”
When a detailed written plan is in place, but one spouse does not want to abide by it, it can be legally enforced and can possibly lead to the spouse being found in contempt of court and having their wages garnished.
If a written plan doesn’t exist and you live in a state that cannot force your ex-spouse to help with tuition, there’s little you can do aside from nicely asking them to share the cost with you. The way that conversation plays out will largely depend on your relationship with your ex-spouse.
“One parent often feels as though they’re only being treated as a pocketbook because they’re asked to write a check for tuition even though they haven’t been included in the college search and selection process,” Kantrowitz said.
That’s why he advises children to involve both parents in the process, particularly if the parents aren’t in communication with each other.
“I recommend that students interact with both parents. They should tell them what they’re thinking and ask for their opinion. Even if they ultimately ignore their advice, at least they’ve involved them in the process. That can help avert problems down the road.”
Filling out the FAFSA after divorce: What you need to know
Even if you and your ex-spouse have a great relationship and agree to share the cost of your child’s tuition, you may still have to rely on financial aid – a process which can be complicated, particularly if you’re divorced or separated.
The first step to applying for financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Only one parent is responsible for filling out the FAFSA, and that is currently the parent who the child lived with the most in the 12 months ending on the date the FAFSA is filed (or if the child lived equally with both parents, it becomes the parent who provided the most financial support).
That rule is expected to change with the 2024-2025 FAFSA, which will likely require that the parent who provided the most financial support fill out the form (a reflection of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021). However, at the time this article was published, the U.S. Department of Education had not given any official details and there is some indication that the expected changes might be delayed.
There are other things to consider when filling out the FAFSA. For instance, if you’re divorced or separated but still living in the same house with your ex-partner, you must report both of your incomes. If you live in two separate homes, only the income of the parent the child lived with the most needs to be reported (but once again, that is likely to change soon). At the moment, both legal separation and informal separation are accepted. However, only legal separation will be accepted from the 2024-2025 FAFSA onwards.
Alimony also needs to be considered, and if the parent filling out the FAFSA has remarried, the income of the new spouse (the student’s stepparent) needs to be reported. This is the case even if there is a prenuptial arrangement which states that the stepparent will not be contributing towards the child’s college costs.
The risks of lying on the FAFSA for divorced parents
During his tenure as one of the most highly respected financial aid experts in the country, Kantrowitz has come across more than a few dishonest (and highly illegal) approaches aimed at increasing the amount of financial aid received – most of which are quickly uncovered by officials.
“College financial aid administrators have more experience detecting fraud than families have perpetrating it,” Kantrowitz said.
He noted that some divorced or separated couples claim they don’t live in the same home when they actually do, but all it takes is one simple phone call in order for them to be found out.
“They’ll call one spouse’s house and ask for the other,” Kantrowitz said, adding that schools are required to investigate whenever they receive conflicting information – for instance if one parent is claiming to be the parent the child lives with, but appears to live in an entirely different state from the child.
Kantrowitz noted that “lying on the FAFSA is a serious offense” that can carry a fine of up to $20,000 per incident and up to five years in jail – but that’s not the worst of it.
“Depending on whether you file the FAFSA via U.S. mail or electronically, you’re dealing with mail fraud or wire fraud and those carry even stiffer penalties – not to mention the College Scholarship Fraud Prevention Act of 2000, which adds additional enhancements,” Kantrowitz said.
Then there is, of course, the risk of your ex-spouse discovering your lie. “If it wasn’t an amicable divorce and the ex-spouse finds out you lied, you can be sure they’re going to tell on you.”
Even if the divorce wasn’t amicable, Kantrowitz, who authored the book Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?: How to Increase College Graduation Rates without Sacrificing College Access, said both parents must still make a conscious effort to avoid putting the child in the middle.
“Children of divorced parents are less likely to enroll in college than children who have intact family units. They’re at a significant disadvantage because they get stuck in the middle, and they become a weapon that each parent uses against the other. The one who definitely loses in that situation is the child.”
If you have questions about applying for financial aid or want to fill out the FAFSA online, be sure to visit the Federal Student Aid website.