Are Parents Required to Pay for Higher Education in TN?
The state does not require either parent to pay for their child’s college tuition and expenses, so parents need to come up with a plan of their own. For divorcing parents especially, it’s important to proactively plan for the future and consider how their shared children's college tuition will be paid. College and post-secondary schooling expenses are not included as part of state-ordered child support. However, divorcing parents do have options for coming to a legal agreement regarding saving and paying for their children's tuition, housing, and fees.
There are several ways that divorced parents can manage and plan for their child’s college costs as part of the divorce process, depending on the age of the child and the type of college they will attend. Let’s take a look at some of these options.
Using Your Parenting Plan to Your Advantage
Under Tennessee law, the obligation for both parents to pay court-ordered child support ends when the child reaches 18 or graduates high school - whichever comes first. That said, most parents provide some level of support to their children well past the age of 18, especially if their child decides to attend college, trade school, or some other type of post-secondary education program.
Although there is no legal requirement for either parent to contribute financially towards their child’s higher education, many divorced couples choose to include this information in their parenting plan or as part of their settlement agreement. This way, both parties know who is responsible for paying what post-divorce.
Difficult but important things to discuss regarding college expenses when building your parenting plan:
- The earning capacity of both parents and how it relates to their ability to contribute to their child's college savings.
- Whether either parent expects to see career and/or income growth between now and when their child expects to attend college, and how this can be factored into planning.
- Whether either parent has other dependents outside their shared children and how this impacts their ability to save for college tuition.
- Who will be responsible for managing college savings accounts, and how can transparency and accountability regarding the management of these accounts be established between co-parents.
Parents should also consider inflation rates as well as rising costs associated with everything from college tuition to living expenses. Many people are concerned about the current economic climate, and parents would be wise to factor this into their planning for their children's future college expenses.
Setting Up College Funds
If your child is younger than 18 and you know they will be attending college in a few years, consider setting up a 529 savings account or another tax-advantaged college fund. These funds typically grow tax-free and are beneficial because they allow children to save money specifically designated for college tuition costs. Additionally, starting early allows more time for compounding interest rates which can make a big difference come time to pay tuition bills.
You should speak with a financial advisor and shop your options before setting up a college savings plan. This can help you select the plans that make the most sense for you financially and will net you the most benefits.
In-State vs. Out-of-State Costs
The cost differences between attending an in-state public university versus an out-of-state private institution can be drastic - upwards of $20k per year! Private universities also tend to be significantly more expensive than public ones. Yet, parents should also be aware that most schools offer discounts and scholarships if certain criteria are met, even to out-of-state students. This could mean significant savings when it comes time to send your kid off to school.
Managing expectations can go a long way when it comes to successfully co-parenting and navigating discussions around college planning. Discussing these choices beforehand with your co-parent and your child can help avoid any surprises down the line. Not only will this help everyone get on the same page, but it can also help you preserve a positive co-parenting relationship and avoid misunderstandings.
Get Help from an Attorney if You Need It
From setting up 529 accounts to allocating specific amounts from each parent according to a parenting plan or settlement agreement to understanding state discounts offered by universities and colleges, there are many strategies available to divorced parents. With careful planning, both parents can work together towards providing financial stability while ensuring that neither party bears too much responsibility when it comes time to pay those hefty college tuition bills.
Yet, we all know that the best-laid plans sometimes don't pan out. If you are in a situation where your co-parent is not adhering to your parenting plan agreement regarding college tuition responsibilities, reach out to Casey, Simons, & Bryant, PLLC for help. Our family law attorneys have helped many Tennessee parents deal with custody and support disputes, and we are here to help you, too.