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Pitfalls of agreeing to pay college support when marriage ends

You are getting a divorce or marriage dissolution and have a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old. Your spouse wants the agreement to include a provision dealing with college support. He or she puts forth good reasons for doing so, but committing to that makes you nervous.

The reality is that you do have good reasons to be nervous. Agreeing to pay some college support when your children are still far from college can be risky.

Circumstances change

It may be one thing to draw up an agreement for college support when the children are, say, 16 and 17. While your circumstances can change in the next few years, the odds of them doing so are lower than over an extended period.

Now say you have a child who might begin to attend college in five years and another who would attend in 13 years. That is a lot of time for both your circumstances and your co-parent's to change. Suppose that you both currently make similar incomes, and your spouse is pressing for a 50/50 split of college costs. What happens if, in five or 13 years, your ex-spouse is making twice or three times the amount you are? You are still on the hook for half of the expenses, per the agreement. Similarly, you might currently be making two times what your ex-spouse does and agree to pay 66 percent of costs, but by the time college rolls around, you have been disabled or laid off.

Parenting philosophies differ

It could also be that your parenting philosophy leans toward your child attending community college to save money and working part-time. Meanwhile, your co-parent thinks that children should be free to choose in-state or out-of-state schools and for parents to help as much as possible regardless of cost. Given such different views, it can be risky to nail yourself down early to an agreement you may not be comfortable with and that could be vaguely worded. There is also the fact that your own philosophies and approaches toward funding college could change.

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