Children, Postsecondary Education and Divorce

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Children, Postsecondary Education and Divorce

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When I was growing up, I was always told that I was responsible for paying for my own university education. My parents wanted me to go to university, but they also wanted me to start learning how to be financially independent. Actually, I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision on their part to make me financially independent or just how they did things. Both my parents had to pay for their own postsecondary education (and my dad had to sell his beloved 57 Chevrolet Belair to finance his education). There could have been a touch of martyrdom – “I had to sacrifice certain things – i.e. my beloved car, so so do you.”

I lived at home with my parents when I went to the local university and I paid my tuition out of the summer jobs I held. My parents did help me out. They paid for half a car and the related car insurance every year I went to school and of course I saved considerably by living at home.

So when I tend to think about my kids going to university, I don’t feel like it is my obligation to pay for them. That said, things are considerably more expensive these days. My tuition was $2,000 per year at the local university and these days it is $10,000 per year. I know that the minimum wage that my 17 year old self earned during the summer has not kept pace with this increase in tuition. Also, I always felt like I missed out on some valuable life experience by living at home. So I’m wavering on the idea of making my kids fund their own education and have started to think I would try to support my kids if I could. However, I did think it was my choice to support them at the postsecondary level.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that a friend was still paying child support for a stepdaughter who was 28 years old.  I was amazed to learn that parents are financially responsible for children that are pursuing their first university degree and are unmarried – regardless of how old they are!

This information got reinforced when I was going through my own divorce and my lawyer explained that the obligation to pay child support ceases in respect of a child who:

(a) marries,

(b) becomes self-supporting, or

(c) becomes 19 years old, unless the child remains a “child of the marriage” within the meaning of the Divorce Act because of inability to become self-supporting due to illness, disability, the pursuit of education, or other cause.

I find this interesting. By divorcing your partner, you in fact have a greater financial obligation to your children than if you stayed married. If your child decides he or she is going to university, then both parents are obliged to pay under the Child Support Provisions of the Divorce Act.

If parents stay together, they can simply band together to tell their child: “sorry – you’re an adult, fend for yourself.”  This is no longer a choice if parents are divorced.

I can see why this law is in place. I have a friend who has two university aged children. Her ex-spouse encouraged her children to go to a university far from their home town and then he refused to pay for it. She has financed her daughter’s (who is in her final year at university) entire education and the only financial help my friend received is help from her daughter. She has been working with the justice system that is in place since her daughter first embarked on her university degree three years ago and so far despite getting decisions in her favour (the judge has repeatedly stated that her children’s father must help fund the children’s education), my friend has not received any money. She is hopeful that by the time her son is ready to graduate university (in three more years), she will get some money from their father.

So despite the fact that the law states both parents are on the hook to support their children during their postsecondary years, it is often a battle to implement this and it has taken considerable work and time on my friend’s part. She is extremely frustrated with the entire process.

To prevent getting into this type of situation, I recommend communication. Communication with your spouse, with your children and with yourself. Discuss what you envision with your spouse regarding your children’s future education. If you are getting divorced, then ensure that there are clear guidelines about financing your children’s postsecondary education in your separation agreement. Ensure the wording is clear and the arrangement for determining amounts to be financed are clear. Much of the time and energy my friend has spent has been in determining what amounts are to be split by the parents and how to track and account for those amounts. If there is nothing regarding postsecondary education in your separation agreement, start thinking about how you can bring this topic up with your ex before your children have their hearts set on going to a university far from home.

If it seems like your co-parent is not on board with sharing costs of a postsecondary education then you need to have a good long talk with yourself about whether you can fund it on your own or whether you need to start helping your children adjust their expectations about what postsecondary education is going to look like for them.

If you decide you are going to fund your children’s education because it is important to you, then you need to look at your financial situation to see if this is a possibility and if it is not, how you can make it one.

 

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