College Expenses for Divorced Parents

Education expenses

As a parent, you want the best for your child, and that includes making sure he or she gets the best education possible. With college costs rising, paying for that education is a challenge for most parents. After a divorce, coordinating with your co-parent to apply for financial aid and deciding who will be responsible for which costs can make it even harder.

Here are some of the questions we commonly hear from divorced, divorcing, and never-married parents about sending their children to college.

Can One Parent Be Forced to Pay a Child’s College Expenses?

In Ohio, parents are obligated to support their children up to age 18 or until the child graduates from high school (provided graduation occurs prior to the child’s nineteenth birthday).

While some states allow domestic relations courts to force one parent to pay for a child’s college expenses, Ohio is not among them. That said, parents are free to reach an agreement regarding the payment of college expenses that can be included in their divorce decree or parenting plan. If there is an agreement between the parties that is filed with the Court, that agreement becomes an enforceable court order.

Because this type of agreement goes beyond the standard financial obligation a parent has toward a child, it is not advisable for parents to draft these agreements on their own. A lack of precision in language can create a highly negative situation in the event the obligated parent cannot pay. If care is not taken and payment for college cannot be made, the wrong language could permit both your other parent and your child to sue for nonpayment. Do not agree to these types of provisions on your own.

How Do I Fill Out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) After Divorce?

When parents are married, information about both of them must be included on the FAFSA, the form that determines a student’s eligibility for student aid. After divorce and for never-married and separated parents, you may be relieved to learn that you (probably) do not have to coordinate completion of your child’s FAFSA with your other parent.

If parents are separated or divorced and not living together, the child answers parent questions with information about the parent with whom they lived a greater amount of time during the previous 12 months. If the child spent equal amounts of time with both parents, he/she should provide answers about the parent who provided more financial support during that time, or during the most recent 12 months that he/she received support from a parent.

However, if parents are separated or divorced but DO live together, the child will have to answer questions about both of them on the form.

What Kind of Parent Information is Required on the FAFSA?

For each parent that a child is required to provide information about on the FAFSA, certain essential facts will need to be disclosed. Your child will need to provide your name, date of birth, and Social Security number (this can be used to import income information, which must also be provided, from your most recently-filed income tax return). Other parent information that must be reported includes marital status, household size, state of residence, and information about your assets. If you are divorced, you will need to provide the date of your divorce.

You and your child can begin filling out the FAFSA as early as October 1 of the year preceding the year for which you are seeking financial aid. Often, the earlier you fill out the form, the more financial aid is available. It’s worth gathering bank statements, asset information, and other financial documents and getting the process out of the way early.

Do Stepparents Factor Into Financial Aid Calculations?

If your child must complete the FAFSA using your information and you are remarried, the child must report information, including financial information, about the stepparent. There is one exception: the form contains questions about the applicant’s parents’ level of education. For that question,  your child should provide information about you and his/her other legal parent, not the stepparent. (If the stepparent has adopted your child, then he/she is the other legal parent.)

Should We Consider Financial Aid When Planning a Parenting Schedule?

Probably. Since the legal parent with whom the child resides most of the time is considered the “custodial parent” for FAFSA purposes, there is some merit to pre-planning where your child will “reside,” especially during the 12 months before he/she will apply for financial aid.

Let’s say that you and your other parent live five miles apart and equally share residential responsibility (physical custody), under a shared parenting plan. You earn $120,000 per year, and the other parent earns $60,000 per year. By arranging for your child to spend a few more nights per year living with the other parent, that parent becomes the “custodial parent” for financial aid purposes. Only the other parent’s income would be reported on your child’s FAFSA, and your child would probably be eligible for more financial aid than would be the case than if he/she lived with the higher-earning parent more than half the time.

Allowing one parent to be the “custodial parent” for financial aid purposes may have other financial effects; for instance, the “custodial parent” typically gets to claim the child on his/her income tax return. If it would be more beneficial for the non-custodial parent to claim the child, the custodial parent can usually waive that right. See this article for tax tips also.

Do Children of Divorced Parents Get More Financial Aid?

Being the child of divorced, separated, or never-married parents does not mean your child will automatically receive more financial aid to cover college expenses. That said, if you are able to coordinate with your other parent so that your child resides a greater period of time during those last 12 months with the parent who has a lower income, he/she may receive more financial aid.

You can learn more about divorce and financial aid from your child’s college or from the U.S. Department of Education. If you have further questions about divorce and financial aid, please contact our law office to schedule a consultation.