For a separating couple with minor children, the responsibility of college costs can be an increasingly complex issue when discussing child support. Finances are a major discussion point for all couples and often a point of major dissention. Most parents desire to support their children with their educational plans, goals, and dreams. But, legally in North Carolina, a parent’s obligation to support a child ends when the child has turned 18 and has graduated from high school. North Carolina law does not require that parents pay for college tuition, textbooks, or college related housing expenses. A family court judge cannot order a parent to pay for a child’s college expenses. So, if a couple cannot resolve their issues via a separation agreement or mediation and the couple finds themselves before a family law judge, the judge will address child support and payments. However, the judge does not have the legal authority to order any assistance for a child’s college costs in accordance with NCGS 50-13.4.
How Do Divorced Parents Pay for College?
If you want to make sure that both you and your co-parent assist with college expenses for your child or children, the only legally enforceable option is to make the college assistance obligations part of a legally enforceable contract such as your separation agreement. But beware: parents should give great consideration to this obligation. If the minor children are close to college age, it might be easier to project what their college expenses may be. This would ensure not only that non-traditional college students or students who need to pause their education don’t lose out on finances that would have helped them complete their degree, but also to ensure that the parents are not legally on the hook for any unexpected choices their now adult-aged child might make.
Regardless of how you would like to structure your agreement, parents are encouraged to put financial and academic performance based restrictions in place. Some parents may want to limit their contribution to a set amount and with a restriction as to the number of years. This kind of wording can benefit parents who might want to limit their obligation as to avoid supporting a perpetually enrolled student who keeps changing his or her major for years and years.
Likewise, some parents choose to set a restriction based on the average cost for the specific degree their child is seeking in order to ensure their entire enrollment is covered. There are a lot of issues to consider when taking this route. Will parents support the pursuit of a technical or 2 year degree just as they would a 4 year degree? What about post-graduate studies? Professional degrees? Will parents support each child with the same amount of support, even if they pursue very different degree paths? How is that support calculated? Many parents will start funding a college savings account and require each parent to make monthly or yearly contributions. Requiring life insurance on each parent might be a consideration to make.
Some Special Considerations
An important factor to consider when drafting your agreement is age. The younger the potential college students are, the more thought one might need to give to the issue of college expenses. If the minor child is 5 for instance, it does not make sense to hand them a lump sum for a bill that will be paid more than 13 years later (assuming you have that much money on hand in the first place). Trust accounts can be set up to assure that both parents are making regular contributions and will only be paid out when certain conditions are met, such as your child turning 18. It is also reasonable to expect college prices to fluctuate or for your child to later decide on a career path that may require a different educational route than you originally expected. Be sure to word things so that your child is taken care of and that neither parent is taken advantage of financially.
Additionally, there are many other financial concerns to take into account when planning for your child’s education. Will your salary be able to support the college assistance? Will you have other child support obligations? Will the other parent have child support obligations? Can and will grandparents help? Some parents might even want to include statements in their agreements that address the cost of college applications, college visits and studying abroad.
There are many necessary things to consider when separating and divorcing, both in regards to college and your life in general; all decisions are important. Supporting your children throughout the divorce process is essential, but equal weight should be placed on making sure they are supported once they’re finally ready to leave the nest. Whether you choose to provide a set amount for them for the future or provide them with complete support once certain conditions are met, including a plan for college in your divorce agreements will ensure your children have every opportunity to succeed in the future.