How Divorced Parents Pay For College — With or Without the Ex

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College tuition, student loans and divorce can be a messy mix. Planning out how to pay for college costs can get even trickier when you’re working with an ex.

But many divorced parents make it work each year for the benefit of their children attending college. From FAFSA forms to divorce agreements, here are some tips for exes to work together and figure out how each parent can help pay for college.

Know your state’s divorce laws
Review what your divorce agreement says about college
Plan with your ex to pay for college
Understand how to file a FAFSA if you’re divorced
Take advantage of educational tax credits

Know your state’s divorce laws

If you’re wondering what states require parents to pay for college, keep in mind that divorce laws vary widely by state. That includes rules regarding paying for college.

“Depending on the state where the family lives, this may be tough,” said Carol Meerschaert, a divorcee who helped her three children attend college. “I got divorced in Maine, so there is no law to support putting paying for college in a divorce decree. In Maine, once the child is 18 they are on their own.”

Some state laws might require a divorced parent to financially support a child in college even when there is no college support agreement in place. In Utah and Washington, for example, laws allow courts to order a non-custodial parent to pay, reports Lawyers.com.

In these cases, the judge weighs factors like the non-custodial parent’s ability to pay. The judge might also consider the child’s academic goals and access to other forms of support such as scholarships or federal student aid. The amount each parent is expected to contribute and other details are then determined by the judge and outlined in a court order.

Review what your divorce agreement says about college

Most states allow parents who are divorcing to work out a voluntary college support agreement. This is a contract in which the divorcees agree on responsibility for college costs and details of payment.

“Often, the parents either commit to each save a certain amount per month or per year, per child” toward a college account, said Jessica Markham, a Maryland-based attorney specializing in family law. Alternatively, “they will commit to funding college at a certain rate,” such as agreeing to pay the cost of an in-state public college, she added.

If, for instance, your ex won’t pay for college, review your divorce decree and college support agreement to see how it outlines his contributions to education costs.

Plan with your ex to pay for college

One of the trickiest aspects of paying for college with an ex is navigating a tumultuous relationship.

“Don’t underestimate these factors when it comes to asking a parent to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for college educations,” Meerschaert said.

If possible, exes should try to communicate and put past differences aside to work together. There are a variety of ways to divide college costs and responsibilities, from jointly funding a 529 college savings account to agreeing on who should cosign your child’s private student loans.

But divorcees also need to be realistic about each parent’s ability and willingness to pay for educational costs. A divorce means splitting up households and increasing the family’s costs, Markham pointed out. And remarriage requires you to take new spouses, stepchildren or other dependents into consideration, too.

Overall, “there is less expendable income to go around,” Markham said.

Unfortunately, in some cases an ex might be unable or unwilling to contribute to college costs. It can be difficult to figure out costs alone, but the paying parent should know in advance that they will be shouldering costs alone and so they can plan accordingly.

Understand how to file a FAFSA if you’re divorced

When it comes to student loans and divorce, one of the most important aspects is filing the FAFSA correctly and advantageously.

Simply deciding whether you or your ex is responsible for filing the FAFSA can be confusing, said Joe Orsolini, a certified financial planner and founder of College Aid Planners.

“If parents are divorced, it [is] the custodial parent that completes the FAFSA,” he said. “If the custodial parent gets remarried, the new spouse’s information goes on the FAFSA as well.”

The FAFSA’s custodial parent definition is simple: it is whoever the student lived with for the majority of the past 12 months. If the student split their time equally between two homes, the custodial parent is the one who provided primary financial support.

The non-custodial parent will not have to submit information for the FAFSA. This parent can still contribute to college costs, but their income and assets won’t be included in calculating the Expected Family Contribution. This can help the student qualify for need-based aid, especially if the non-custodial parent earns more.

There’s an exception to this rule, however: divorced or separated parents will both need to be listed if they still live together in the same household.

“This leads to a lot of last-minute scrambling to get one parent out of the house” at times, Orsolini said, so that the parent’s income isn’t included on the FAFSA.

Take advantage of educational tax credits

Divorced parents can also be strategic about how they claim a child on their taxes.

“There are tax credits for paying college tuition, but you must claim the student to receive them,” Orsolini said. Only one parent in a divorce can claim a child.

Additionally, the parent who claims the college student as a dependent doesn’t have to be the same person listed as the custodial parent on the FAFSA.

“Think of FAFSA rules, IRS regulations and divorce laws as a Venn diagram — sometimes they intersect, other times they don’t,” Orsolini said.

Parents should keep in mind that these tax credit benefits phase out and disappear at higher income levels.

“Divorced parents should be mindful of these limits — otherwise they leave money on the table,” Orsolini said. It could be the difference of as much as $10,000 throughout college, he estimated.

When it comes to college funding, divorce and student loans, it can feel like a confusing whirlwind. Do your research, consult an expert when necessary and work together on your best ways to pay for college.

Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

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