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Who Pays for College Tuition in a Divorce?

In recent decades, many Americans have dramatically changed their views about college. College is no longer seen as an educational experience exclusively for the privileged. Instead, many Americans now believe that higher education is a fundamental right for everyone, regardless of socio-economic background. It has been reported that over 80% of high school graduates in America have some amount of college class experience. This viewpoint has resulted in a sharp increase in both college enrollments and the overall number of higher-education offerings. Everyone, it seems, is going to college, and as such there now seems to be a college for everyone. 

The development of higher education into an economic necessity creates problems in cases of divorce. Both spouses may believe that their child should go to college. After all, a college education is likely to increase the child's chance of gaining a solid entry-level job and becoming financially independent, which is arguably what every parent wants for their child. But who will pay for this education? A college education is not free, after all. Instead, a "standard" four-year degree can cost between fifty and one hundred thousand dollars, depending on the type of school, and a typical private university education can easily run upwards of $50,000 per year. And this price does not include housing, food, textbooks, and other assorted expenses-which further raise the cost.

The cost of a college education is hard enough for intact families; add into the equation the financial disruption (if not devastation) that a divorce can cause and the notion of parents providing this education for their children becomes an elusive goal. There is, after all, only so much money to go around following a divorce, and all too often the costs of life after a divorce to maintain two households, usually on reduced income, just does not allow for the cost of higher education. Unfortunately, at the current time California law does not provide the court authority to compel a party to pay for post-high school education against their will. The court will, however, enforce an agreement of a party to pay this expense, so when negotiating your divorce settlement care should be taken to anticipate the reality that at some point in the future you may have children that are ready and who want to go to college, and in that context you may want to negotiate an agreement form the other party to pay for or at least share in these future expenses.

If both parents agree that college is valuable to their children, they are well served to be counseled to make provision for that event now, at the time the divorce settlement is reached, even if the child in question is very young; better to approach agreement on this subject now than wait until time and circumstance changes that landscape in its entirety. Indeed, you may find that by imposing this obligation now both parties will actually take care to plan (i.e., save) for this expense. In the best case scenario, parents will mutually agree to a well-reasoned financial plan for their children's higher education; there are a myriad of opportunities in that regard and an entire industry dedicated to planning for and funding college education. In cases where agreement cannot be reached, one parent may be forced to pay for the entire college education. This is an unfortunate scenario, but in California, parents cannot be forced to pay for their child's college education any more than they can be forced to pay for a private school education, which is also something the court will not do.

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William A. Feinberg 1928 - 2001

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