I’m divorced and my kid is going to college. How do I get my ex to help pay for tuition?

How can I get my ex to help pay for our kid’s college?

Researchers found something astonishing a few years ago: While kids of married parents cover an average of 23% of their own college costs, kids whose parents are divorced (and haven’t remarried) carry 58% of the financial burden. (Children of remarried parents fare almost as badly, the 2010 study found.) You might think, Sure, divorce often causes financial strain—no wonder these parents can’t kick in as much. But that wasn’t the reason these parents were chipping in less. No matter how much families earned, their kids still carried a higher financial burden if their parents were divorced. So, money alone isn’t the problem.

I think—in many cases—it comes down to communication. Divorced parents should set aside their differences and figure out together how they’ll pay for their kid’s college education. Get it in writing. If you don’t, your kid is the one likely to take the hit. But before you and your ex (or soon-to-be ex) start negotiating, here are a few things you need to know:

Do you have to pay?

Sorry for the cynical question right out of the gate, but this is important: Unless your divorce settlement stipulates that you or your ex contribute to your kid’s college costs, or your state has laws that mandate it, you aren’t legally obligated. You need do your research before talking, because you might not have the law to back you up when trying to get an ex to pitch in fairly.

Your child support agreement probably expires when your kid hits the so-called “age of majority”—18 in most states. But there may be exceptions to this if your kid enters college. And some states do require divorced parents to pitch in. So, find out if you’re still expected to pay support during the years your child is in school. This is especially important to know if your ex-spouse thinks his or her obligations end with high school graduation.

Get it in writing

Most often, an agreement about sharing educational expenses will be reached during your divorce proceedings. To make it clear who will be paying what, I encourage people to create a “college support agreement” in addition to the ordinary child support agreement. This should include details about who will pay what percentage—usually based who makes more money. There should be limitations, though: How many semesters will you be responsible for? Is there an age cutoff for your kid? Are there different stipulations for in-state universities and pricier private schools? Will you rule out private colleges altogether? These should be hashed out along with all the other money matters at the time of the divorce.

Figure out who fills out the FAFSA

It’s key to your bottom line—and your ex’s—to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Submitting this form is necessary to unlock low-interest federal student loans, grants, work-study, and all the things that can bring down college costs. The government calculates how much aid you are expected to pay based on how much money you earn.

But now that your finances are separate, only one parent can fill out the FAFSA. This is the “custodial parent”—whomever your kid lived with the most over the 12 months leading up to the date you completed the form. Note that this isn’t necessarily the same parent who has legal custody. If you split the living arrangements 50/50, the parent who provided more financial support over the past year fills out the form. (This is true also of parents who have never married.) There is one exception: Some private schools ask for a supplemental financial aid form from the non-custodial parent, and they factor in the earnings of both parents to determine their own aid.

Pay less

Some families try gaming the system by naming the lower earner the custodial parent. Don’t do this. Although you might get more financial help for your kid, we’re talking fraud. And financial aid administrators are notoriously good at sniffing it out; they can even ask for proof.

The good news is that you can get more financial help and stay on the right side of the law—by making a few financial moves in advance. The goal is to appear less flush with cash than you are, so consider using it to pay down any high-interest debts. The crucial time period the FAFSA evaluates is the “base year”: Jan. 1 of your kid’s sophomore to Dec. 31 of junior year. If you’re expecting a windfall of cash, try to get it before the base year begins, or push it off until afterward. And if you’ve put any money into your kid’s savings account, transfer it into yours before the base year. Here’s why: The financial aid formula expects students to put 20% of their assets toward college. It expects parents to kick in only up to 5.6% of their money. If you aren’t the custodial parent, it’s a smart idea to suggest these money moves to your ex—gently, of course. They’ll pay off for both of you.

Start early

Under the best circumstances the discussion about how you’ll pay for your kid’s college education begins at birth. Seriously. That’s when I recommend that parents—married or not—open a state-sponsored 529 college savings account, naming the child as its beneficiary. As early as the start of ninth grade, you and your ex-partner should be talking about the costs of college—and including your kid in the conversation. This will give you four years (yikes!) to make sure both parties are contributing fairly—and your kid doesn’t get stuck with an outsized bill (in the form of student loans) because her parents can’t work it out.

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