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Property Settlement Agreements and College Expenses

College ExpensesThe importance of education and obtaining a college degree has grown over the years, to the point where most, if not all, parents make it one of their highest priorities when raising their children. Given the rising costs of attending college, in some instances reaching in excess of $50,000 per year, figuring out how to pay for a child’s education can be a challenge. That challenge is heightened when parents find themselves separated or pursuing a divorce.

When a Virginia Court enters an order regarding child support, the parties’ legal obligation usually ends when the child or children reach the age of 18. However, Virginia Code Section 20-124.2(C) provides that any child support order shall include language ordering parents to support any child who is over the age of 18 who is (i) a full-time high school student, (ii) not self-supporting, and (iii) living in the home of the party seeking or receiving child support until such child reaches the age of 19 or graduates from high school, whichever first occurs. The court may also order the continuation of support for any child over the age of 18 who is (i) severely and permanently mentally or physically disabled, (ii) unable to live independently and support himself, and (iii) resides in the home of the parent seeking or receiving child support. Importantly, Virginia Code Section 20-124.2(C) also provides that the court “may confirm a stipulation or agreement of the parties which extends a support obligation beyond when it would otherwise terminate as provided by law.”

Absent from the Virginia Code is any legal obligation of parents to pay for their children’s college expenses. However, many parents feel a sort of moral obligation to do so. Thus, when divorcing parents attempt to settle their divorce outside of court by way of a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA), at least one of them will often ask: “How are we going to pay for college?”

There are several options to consider and various arrangements to which parties can agree; however, one in particular seems to cause the most regret down the line. And that is: PSA language requiring that one party, without any limitation or conditions, pay for the child or children’s college education. If a party commits to such a provision in a Property Settlement Agreement, and the Agreement is made part of a Final Decree of Divorce, that party can face serious consequences if they are later unwilling or unable to fulfill this obligation.

Here are some suggestions on how to deal with college expenses as part of your divorce:

  1. Commit to your child’s college future, however, do so on a voluntary basis. More specifically, refrain from entering into a specific financial commitment, such as a dollar amount or a percentage. There are so many unknowns and life changes that can and will occur as children near college age. After a divorce, both parents can make their own plans to support their child or children’s educational future.
  2. Start 529 or similar type accounts for your child or children. There are several options for parents to choose from when they want to plan for a child’s educational future. Through research or consultation with a financial advisor, a parent can establish a solid financial plan.
  3. If your soon-to-be-ex spouse insists on including a section in your PSA regarding how college will be paid for, consider the option of using “aspirational” language, for example stating simply that each parent “will put forth their best efforts to financially support future college expenses.” This type of language does not commit the parties to specific financial terms, but simply acknowledges each party’s obligation to do what is possible within their means to pay for college.

Contemplating divorce while also trying to plan for a child’s educational future involves many factors. Representation by an experienced family law attorney is essential if you want to ensure that you make informed decisions and do what is best for both you and your child. Livesay & Myers has a team of experienced family law attorneys across offices in Manassas, Fredericksburg and Fairfax, Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.