Lots of parents of high school students are thinking about college this time of year – and how they are going to pay for it. Like many aspects of being a parent, divorce changes the how-to-pay-for-college issue in some respects.

In the absence of an agreement, the judge cannot order you or your spouse to pay the costs of your children’s college education in Maryland or Virginia. A spouse may agree to pay or contribute to college costs in return for the other parent’s promise also to contribute, or for some other promise.

You can agree to pay all college costs, but a frequently used cap is the cost of in-state tuition plus room and board at University of Maryland or University of Virginia. You can also define which costs are included and which costs are not included.

Other issues to consider are: Do the costs of any post-secondary training qualify or just traditional college? Will your child have to be a full-time student. Will there be a time limit on completion?

An agreement should clearly define the allocation of costs between the parents. Consider whether to provide for annual contributions to a Sec. 529 account or other account for the child or children. Generally, the agreement should provide that the parents’ obligation arises only after all 529 accounts and other resources of the child have been applied to college costs.

Make it clear that Mom and Dad are exchanging promises and neither of you are promising the children anything. As parents you reserve the right to jointly decide that your son or daughter is not ready for college or it is not the right choice for him or her and decline to pay for it.

Remember that once agreed by the parties and incorporated into the judgment of divorce the promise to pay for college is enforceable by a suit on the contract or by contempt of court. See Brodsky v. Brodsky, 319 Md. 92; 570 A.2d 1235; 1990 Md. LEXIS 45 (Md. 1990) where the court, construing the parties’ contract, held that Father had to pay for tuition at Boston University not a “more reasonably priced” college and he was not entitled to apply UTMA funds belonging to the child to his contractual obligation to pay college costs. Even if you are unable to reach a satisfactory agreement regarding college at the time of the divorce, you may be able to work it out when your child reaches college age.

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