Knowledge Base

Sharing the College Education
Expense, in Divorce 


August 1, 2014
Written by Lynne C. Halem

The vast majority of parents want their children to attend college. 

Not uncommonly, a parent will reinforce their objective by verbally offering up great personal sacrifices just to be sure that their children have every opportunity to go to the best college money or talent can buy. The “I would scrub floors to pay for Harvard” line, is proof that at least one parent would do anything, relinquish anything, to pay for junior’s education, yet this sacrificial statement evokes more drama than substance; in effect, it is really a call to the other parent to join together in pledging support for a child’s college degree. Thus the question to be answered by all parents - separated or divorced parents, married or unmarried- is: How will the child’s college education be funded?  In short, who will pay and how much?

In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the year 2014 we are hearing more and more lawyers and even some judges propose a one-third, one-third, and one-third split of costs.  In this paradigm, each parent is responsible for one-third of the child’s education and the remaining one-third is the child’s liability.

The formula, undefined, brings up more questions than it answers.                  

Let us consider a few: 

What we learn upon closer consideration is that a simplistic division of liability inherent in the “One-Third” for all Formula negates differences in each individual’s—parents and child’s—ability to finance the debt. 

It also overlooks differences in the long-term earning power of the child’s specific education.  Not all college degrees will produce the same monetary return.  This is certainly not an argument for all degree candidates to base their selection of career choice on financial return.  However, it is a serious question that parents might want to consider when assessing each party’s ability to repay a debt obligation that may be unmanageable or become so in the future.

Families with younger children, have more choices.   In this case, parents have more years to accumulate funds for their children’s college education.   Hopefully they have the luxury of being able to designate gifts, set aside savings, and add children’s earnings to the pool of funding for future schooling.  Herein the key: time and clever planning may well change an untenable commitment into a workable plan.

In mediation couples are typically faced with reaching agreement on funding their children’s education.  Even families with very young children should at the least agree on a realistic date to begin saving for each child’s post-secondary schooling.

Consider some options:

There are obviously more questions to be asked than answers given.  In each family the circumstances vary.  Not surprisingly the differences speak of the need to individualize the solution and devise appropriate strategies.  A simplistic formula may well work for one family and be detrimental to others.  Mediation offers the opportunity to explore the differences inherent in each family’s objectives and ability to actualize their goals.

Parental collaboration now can help avoid future disappointment, confusion, and even litigation later. 

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