For separating and divorcing couples with young children the cost of a college education may seem far off and the least of their current problems. For those with older children, the question may be looming large, or not.

Last winter, I attended the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation conference in NYC where the highly respected, seasoned (and funny!) divorce mediator and family law attorney, Steve Abel, presented on the topic of mediating around these issues.

A first question for parents to answer is whether parents intend to pay for college. Assuming they agree to pay, these are some issues for consideration:

  • Will they pay for tuition and costs associated with the most competitive college their child can attend or will they cap the amount at costs associated with a State University of New York (known as a SUNY cap)?
  • Will they split all tuition and expenses 50/50 or will they pay according to their relative incomes? Will they consider assets they each have at the time? What if one has a lower income but more in assets due to an inheritance or gift?
  • Is there an age after which they will not pay? In NY, child support is mandatory until age 21 (with a few exceptions). Most kids don’t finish college until 22. Is there an age at which the parents agree they will no longer pay?
  • Must the institution be an accredited college or university? How about technical or vocational school?
  • Will they pay for 4 years of college only? There are students who don’t complete their degree in 4 years. What about graduate school?
  • Will they set limits to expenses associated with food and rent?
  • Will the parent paying child support get a credit for the amount paid toward room and board? Will it be prorated over time or will it be credited in a lump sum? How are financial aid and/or scholarship monies applied toward living expenses? Where there is more than one child, what percentage of the support payment is being credited?
  • Will their child be expected to apply for student loans? Will money given in aid etc., be deducted first and then the parents’ contributions determined? Will those monies be credited to each parent equally?
  • How will pre college prep courses, tests, application fees and expenses associated with visiting prospective colleges be divided? What about books, computers, etc.? What about extras such as cell phones and study abroad?
  • Will each parent’s payments be made directly to the school or will one make the payments and the other will reimburse?

In mediation, couples can address as many of these issues as possible as well as include language in their agreements that they will return to mediation in the future if necessary. Of course, these questions are more complicated than whether to buy Crayola or generic when shopping for school supplies but facing them head on has its rewards. Predictability and reduced conflict in the future are good reasons to try.

Image credit: Tax Credits On Flickr, used with Creative Commons license.

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