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Roberta K. Feldman

Understanding Paying for College When Divorced - NY State Law

Roberta Feldman explains paying for a child's college education when parents are divorced in New York

How are we going to pay for our children’s college education? And what happens in a divorce? Most people realize that in an intact family, there is nobody on the outside who is going to decide that for them. So what happens in a divorce?

So first of all, people do want to know, are we required to send our children to college? And the answer is, “No.” The law still looks at college as a luxury. It’s not a necessity. Under New York law, parents are required to support their children until age 21. So if a child is going to attend post-high school education, college is a component of that support.

So the first question is, how old are the children? If they’re toddlers or in elementary school, no court is going to make a decision at that time as to the allocation of expenses for college. It’s not ripe for decision. So when does it become ripe? Well, either the parents are getting divorced while the children or child are close to attending college, or most times it occur in what we call a post-divorce application. So parents were divorced when the children were young, and now they’re in high school, and they don’t have any agreement as to how to share the cost for their child’s education.

So what are the parent’s own educational backgrounds, and did they plan for their child or children to attend college; and not just financially? Has the child taken college preparatory classes? Has the child attended precollege workshops? What preparations have the parents made? And have both parents been involved in those decisions? So assuming all of those answers are “Yes,” then we have a question how to prepare for the cost sharing. So the common rule in our state is what we call the SUNY Cap. And that means, that in most middle class families, no parent is going to be required to contribute to their child’s college education beyond the cost of an average SUNY college or university. So currently the cost is around $20,000 per year for tuition, room, board, and fees. So often that cost can be shared equally between the parents. Or it (the cost) can be shared in, what we call, pro rata, meaning a comparison of the parents’ incomes to each other so it might not be equal. Or some judges and parents feel that the child should contribute something to that education so that they have, what we call, skin in the game. And many parents feel that is important, whether that is through work-study, through loans, through summer jobs, a child can contribute as well to those expenses.

So the cost of the education – that’s the first step - and there are cases where parents and their children receive grants, loans, scholarships from private colleges that bring the cost down close to the SUNY cost, and that means that it is the same scenario as it would be if it were a SUNY school.

The other question that often arises is, “How does this affect child support, if at all?” So assuming, let’s say, a child is attending SUNY Geneseo, and they live there, approximately 8 months of the year, a parent who is paying child support, wonders whether he or she should be paying the full amount of child support when he or she is contributing to the room and board. So child support can be adjusted or sometimes we just look at the tuition part of the expense and consider the paying parent’s child support is used towards the child’s room and board; because of course the children still need a home to come to, they need recreation when they are home; they need clothes; and that’s not factored into the college expenses.

 So there is a lot to consider. Parents often have 529 accounts set aside for children’s education, or other savings, sometimes there are contributions from other family members, and all of that into the equation. As you can tell, every case is unique and different but there are some standards that help guide us. Any other questions that you might have about this or other family law topics, please feel free to visit our website at .



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