Divorce & College Costs What happens when one parent no longer pays

I started 2019 wondering if I had to sue my ex-husband or not. Happy new year to me.

We have two kids, a son who is in high school and a daughter who is studying at Temple University in Philadelphia. She and her dad, my ex, got into an argument last fall that neither one could resolve. Then my ex-husband cut off our daughter financially, canceling her health insurance, refusing to pay his portion of her college tuition and changing his email on the school’s financial portal (Apparently he receives messages at no@f***ingway.com).

Needless to say, my ex and I have different parenting styles.

Maryland is one of many states that doesn’t require former spouses to reach agreement about paying for their children’s college costs; state law only dictates that financial support is required up to age 18. When I got divorced, my attorney encouraged me not to address the issue of college costs.

But how have other divorced parents handled this, I asked Samantha Smith, a family law attorney in Westminster. Smith is often appointed by the court to serve as a best interest attorney, representing the children in a divorce case. She has also served as my attorney for the past few years, so I asked her, what parents going through divorce should do to make sure one person is not left with the college bill. What would she have advised me to do when I got divorced?

Since there is no law governing what parents must pay for after a child turns 18, so much “depends on the case, depends on the people, depends on their resources,” Smith says. And there are pros and cons of addressing the issue of college costs in a divorce settlement agreement, she says.

The most obvious benefit is that parents are committing to the future and to their child.

But what if one parent has lost a job or taken a pay cut? What if a parent has become sick or is on disability? There could be very real reasons they can’t financially support the college goals laid out in an agreement years before, she says. Consider, too, the rise in college costs over the past decade. Parents who divorced in 2009 might not have foreseen how much more they could be paying for their children’s schooling in 2019.

Understandably, there is a “lot of important crafting in the language” around payment agreements, Smith says. Factors to consider are who pays, if paying equals a say in a student’s college choice, GPA requirements for the student and whether parents who pay have access to their child’s academic records. Because college students are usually 18 or over, parents only have access to academic records if their children allow them.

Provisions that give parents an out if they are unemployed or disabled should be considered, too.

Smith often recommends that clients ask for language that says their obligation is equal to tuition and room and board at University of Maryland College Park or another state school. That way, parents are not setting themselves up to pay for an education at an Ivy League or another expensive school that perhaps they cannot afford.

In her practice, she has seen a lot of variables and a variety of parents from “rock solid” who make a commitment for college to “challenging” who “lord” college costs over an ex-spouse or child. The latter she may consider more closely and may recommend an agreement that “takes away any power dynamic.”

“If he’s fighting you on paying child support, he’s not going to cooperate on college,” she says.

This past winter, the Maryland Association of Justice held a workshop on divorce and college costs for family law attorneys in the area. Heidi Fletcher, a Columbia-based education consultant with Leading Lights Consulting, went over a lot of intricacies — whose name a 504 plan should be in, for example, and other items that require divorced parents to communicate and coordinate. She is another great resource for parents who have questions.

“Having parents functional to this point of cooperation is pretty exceptional,” Smith admits. “I’m not saying it’s a unicorn, but it’s probably not the majority of cases.”

For now, I have decided not to take legal action against my ex-husband. While we do have an email agreement from two years ago about college costs, enforcing that takes money. Money that I would rather give our daughter for college.

I recently joked with her about how much more I like Temple now that she and I will pay for all of it. We could wallow and let ourselves be overwhelmed, but I planned to wear my “Temple Mom” shirt every weekend, drink my morning coffee out of a Temple mug and ask for more Temple gear next Christmas. “Let’s Temple it up,” I said.

As I write this, that’s the plan.


About Jessica Gregg

Jessica Gregg is the former editor of Baltimore's Child. She is a happy rowhouse dweller and mother of two.

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