By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.
~G. K. Chesterson

In a pair of studies that looked at parental support for higher education for their children, it was discovered that (1) 29% of divorced parents assisted their children in college versus 88% of intact families (Wallerstein and Lewis, (1988); and (2) divorced parents provided 42% of college costs versus 77% for intact families (Journal of Family Issues). Couple that information with the fact that individuals with college educations earn significantly more over their lives than those with high school diplomas only.

The question, then, is whether divorcing parents should provide for the higher education of their children. In more than half the states and the District of Columbia, judges have authority to award support for college educations beyond the children reaching the age of majority. A handful of states prohibit such authority by courts. The others do neither. In California, the law has no requirements for parents to assist in college support for their children. However, in all states, the courts will enforce written agreements by divorcing parents regarding college funding.

When parents wish to provide a path for their children's higher education, they have many routes available to them. Agreements can specify the terms and limits each parent will undertake in a future plan. The plan can specify the type of institution; define which expenses are included; limits on how long the obligation would last (i.e., 4 years); the responsibility of the child (i.e., be fulltime; maintain a certain grade average; contribute a portion of the costs, etc.); how financial aid is managed; and what each parent's proportionate contribution will be.

Other options include periodic savings toward college, including:

  • College Savings 529 accounts (with tax benefits)
  • Prepaid tuition plans
  • Coverdell Education Savings Accounts
  • Special savings accounts for college expenses.

There are many tax benefits available for college funding including the Hope Scholarship Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, student loan interest deductions, income excluded contributions from employers, and exclusion of certain income for forgiveness of student loans.

As the Chinese proverb says, "Learning is like rowing upstream; not to advance is to drop back."

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