3 Things Divorced Parents Need to Plan for the College Transition

Divorced parents and college

It doesn’t matter if you’re married or divorced, different people have different ideas about how to transition their children into adults. While you may be in favor of providing full financial support, your co-parent may have other ideas. For that matter, even different states’ laws handle the transition to adulthood differently. Big transitions for your child, like college, are infinitely easier when you have a plan. It mitigates stress and anxiety, two things you don’t want around during your child’s move to college!

When preparing for your child to go away to school, there are some big conversations that need to be had with your co-parent. For starters, how much financial support will you, as the child’s parents, provide? Assuming you will provide some level of financial support, who will be responsible for which expenses? Creating a plan for how you’ll handle expenses and other responsibilities as you parent your child during this time will benefit everyone involved. Your child will have the support of a unified parenting team and you’ll be at ease knowing you have a plan to take care of these new expenses.  

Have a Clear Conversation About College (and Get a Written Agreement)

There is no beating around the bush here. You must have a conversation about college so you can be crystal-clear on your responsibilities and what your ex has agreed to take care of as well. You’re making a commitment to this next phase of co-parenting, so be sure you know exactly what you’re agreeing to.

The best time to discuss expectations around college is during your divorce mediation. You’ll already be discussing other issues related to co-parenting. But if you’ve already discussed your separation without touching on college responsibilities (or even if you did it in broad strokes), talk about it as a parenting team as soon as possible so you can prepare for the financial commitments college requires.

Additionally, make sure you get the agreement in writing. Never rely on your brain (or face a he-said-she-said moment). When you discuss commitments and have clear expectations, you’ll avoid having an ongoing dialogue about it later on.

Think of it this way: Would you rather sit down once to hash out what needs must be met or have to keep going back-and-forth with your ex about who can afford what each semester? See, a one-time mediation to discuss college prep doesn’t sound too bad, now does it? (And, truly, mediation can make all the difference!)

Also, keep in mind that sometimes the best-laid plans do go awry as the saying goes. This post is currently being written while we are in the middle of a pandemic. Many people have lost their jobs and those who are fortunate enough to have them may still have a lower income. Life circumstances may require that the plan be revisited and that’s okay. It would need to be revisited if you were still married, too.

Make a Plan for College Expenses

When you’re coming out of a marriage, you may do things for yourself that you haven’t been able to do. Often, that means spending money on a large purchase, whether it’s on a vacation or new furniture. Quite frankly, people do a lot of things they can’t afford when they are freshly divorced.

Here’s the thing… Just because they spend money on it, doesn’t mean they can afford it. But the ex sees someone buying a house and assumes the other person can pick up books, room and board, or another large chunk of college expenses without discussing it with the other person.

The reality of it is that you don’t know the other person's financials, so while you are meeting to discuss obligations, create a plan with exact terms of who will contribute what. Think about: tuition, room and board, books, and ongoing living expenses.

Since this will likely be outside of the child support agreement, you may also want to discuss and create a parenting plan for cell phones, car insurance, and health insurance. You’ll also want to plan for extras while your child is at school, like what happens if they’d like to travel abroad. Also, consider whether your child will have a vehicle at school (and if so, whose car is it? Who takes care of maintenance?) and plan for summers (what house will your child stay at? Will they remain in the town their school is located in? In that case, who pays for that?)

Of course, you’re the parent, so you can assign your child these responsibilities as well. For example: You are willing to let your child take the vehicle they were using throughout high school with them, but they must pay for maintenance and insurance if they want to have a car on campus with them. At some point, it will make sense to include your child in the conversation. Keep in mind, though, even as they transition into adulthood, it’s best if you, as co-parents, can engage in that conversation with a united front.

Then, meet with a financial advisor to prepare for your portion of college expenses. Since you have a plan and know the money realities you’ll be facing for your child’s college education, you can discuss ways to save or invest that will make the most impact for you.

Consider How you Want to Support Your Children’s Transition

This time is about deciding how you want to co-parent and support your child as they transition to adulthood. While you may no longer have to pay child support because your child is technically an adult, you still have to think about how you wish to guide them as they enter the college phase of growth.

The reality is that divorced parents have to get even clearer on these expectations than if you were just managing a day-to-day relationship. 

Like the preparation around health insurance for your child post-child support, you have to come to some agreement. Ideally, you’d present a united decision to your child, but there may be times when you don’t agree and you can’t force the other person to be on your wavelength. Using a mediator is a great way to come to a compromise about financial as well as relationship expectations about the transition to college.

Further College Financial Prep Reading

5 FAFSA Tips for Divorced Parents -  FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA is used to determine federal financial aid and can be confusing to navigate as a divorced parent (often, parents give too much information and reduce the aid available to their child). This post will help you understand and complete the FAFSA correctly.

How to Improve College Financial Aid Opportunities When Divorcing - When I sit down with a couple during mediation, parents with high schoolers often express concerns about how they'll pay for college. This post will help you understand how divorce impacts financial aid and how to improve your chances of securing aid.

Life Insurance and Divorce: Protecting Your Family’s Future - Life insurance is a topic I cover in every single case I do. Knowing how you’ll protect your individual financial future and plan for expenses like college tuition in the event of death is very important to discuss.

At the end of the day, you’ll want to be prepared when you send your child to college. That’s advice for anyone’s benefit, but certainly for divorced parents. As you are discussing your financial and parenting obligations, make sure you are very clear on your arrangements. Decide who will be financially responsible as well as how you wish to emotionally support your children. Make a plan, ideally with a mediator, and stick to it. This will help prepare for your financial success and your emotional state as well.

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