Before you sign that divorce decree, make sure your attorney has ensured your child will receive the college education you, and they, have in mind. This is not the time for some vague, generic language, because the year leading up to your child beginning their college education is the wrong time to find out your decree was worded improperly, or leaves the door open to less-than-ideal circumstances. You'll want to do this during your divorce process, or as soon as possible, and in the specific language that allows your kids, and both parents, to come out with the best possible financial circumstance.
Here's a checklist for making sure you've done the right things regarding college in your divorce process:
1. The parent with the least amount of income should have primary custody (and the corresponding tax deduction for that child) the year prior to applying to college. This will allow your college-bound student to be eligible for more financial aid.
2. Full cooperation in filing the financial aid forms should be required in your decree. That means both parents have to share their financial information with the student so the FAFSA and CSS Profile can be filed in time to meet all deadlines.
3. The divorce decree should identify who will pay for what -- related to college preparation and college. That means prior to college, paying for standardized test prep courses, paying for admissions applications, paying for college visits, etc. It also means agreeing on how college expenses are handled -- split 50/50, dad pays for room & board, mom pays for tuition, you both pay for books and fees, etc. All of that should be spelled out in plain English so there's no dispute when the time comes -- and it will!
4. There should be an appropriate cap to these expenses. The cost of attendance (all college costs combined) has risen about 8 percent per year for the last fifty years, so it would be wise to limit the potential cost of college for both parties in a divorce. For example, Dad agrees to pay 50 percent of all tuition, fees, room & board, etc. up to a threshold of $15,000 per school year for an undergraduate degree. Note that more than half of kids today take longer than 4 years to earn a degree, so you may also want to limit the length of time you will be willing to be "on the hook".
5. The decree should require life insurance and disability insurance for the total of all college-related obligations. The decree won't be worth the paper it's printed on if one of the parents can't work or dies prematurely.
If you fail to have the correct language added to your divorce decree, you could end up paying thousands more than you had planned, and/or end up back in court.
Written with Beth Walker, founder of College Funding Coaches.