We are in the season that High School seniors and their parents suffer from college anxiety. Figuring how to pay that tuition bill is stress enough in a two parent, happy household. In cases of divorced or separated parents, it can be overwhelming. Spring is when I receive most inquiries from clients about the payment of college tuition and expenses. I have just completed a college tour with my child, and attended multiple presentations in which I listened to many questions from parents. While March and April are when the acceptances generally come in, and one parent becomes concerned about the financial contributions of the other, now is actually the time to begin “getting your ducks in a row.” So I offer the following tips:
• One of the most litigated issues in college contribution cases is the relationship between the parent and child and whether the non-custodial parent has been given a voice in the process. Now that your senior (or better yet, if you have a junior) is filtering through the masses of brochures that are coming in the mail every day, make sure that he or she stays in regular contact with the other parent, giving information about the schools he or she is looking at and making a case why they may be a good fit. If the relationship is strained with the non-custodial parent, make doubly sure that this information is flowing on a regular basis, and do it through emails or written correspondence. If your student is not doing this, make sure you do it. It may be a critical issue later. Build a paper trail.
• All colleges and universities are now required to provide an estimate of total costs per year. Find that information on the school’s web site and pass it along. Make sure there are no surprises. And make sure you do it. Sometimes, parents want to make the student responsible for the communication with the other parent. That’s fine until a critical error is made in the excitement of the college process. I once had a case where the student inadvertently received the approval of the other parent on the costs only to find out later that he had not realized that the figures he was using did not include room and board. Understandably, the other parent felt a bit snowed. One this one occasion, be a helicopter parent.
• Make sure you and your student apply for any and all financial aid and scholarships. Even if you do not think that your student will qualify, do it. First, you may be surprised. Some schools are actively seeking students from a specific geographic area, and will offer aid as an incentive. Second, this is a specific issue that courts look at.
• On that note, if you usually file for an extension on your tax returns, or if you know that your former spouse, or other parent does, let them know that it is important to get the returns filed on time. The FAFSA form, the application for federal financial aid, and the form that most schools use when determining need based financial aid, will want to see current income information. If one parent refuses to cooperate in this regard, this may be a factor a court will review.
• Understand how the schools your child wants to attend handles financial aid decisions. Some schools only look at the income of the custodial parent. Others look at the income of both, and still others look at total household income, including income from step parents. Know what you are dealing with and how it may affect your situation.
• Investigate the state schools and apply. This even if your student really does not want to go. First of all, it is good to have a back up safety school. More importantly, many non custodial parents take the position that they should only have to pay for a state school, and when the child has not even applied, that becomes the battle cry of the litigation. Better that you and your student show that you have investigated all options, and have a solid argument as to why another school may be a better fit.
Finally, be realistic. What would you and your former spouse or other parent have done if you were still together? If a state school was the only option that your child would have had if you had lived happily ever after, don’t assume that your ex is going to be ordered to foot $50,000 per year ( unless of course they have had a significant change of circumstances for the better since the break up).