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Protecting your child's college education during a divorce

Most parents naturally want the best for their children -- and that often means making sure that the money is there for a college education no matter what.

Unfortunately, a divorce can sabotage even the best-laid plans for the future unless you specifically keep educational needs in mind during the process.

What should parents focus on?

1. The time limits on support

One of the most important things to determine during a divorce is how long both parents will need to contribute to a child's college needs.

This may be of particular concern to the parent with the greater income who is paying support. However, having a clearly-defined time limit related to educational needs helps everyone in the family (including the child) understand what to expect.

For example, many agreements will limit the parental obligation for college tuition payments to no more than five years. There's usually no parental obligation toward graduate school tuition.

2. The type of payments

There are many college expenses besides tuition. Students usually need to pay additional fees for meal plans, lab work and books. Unless your decree is clear, however, your ex-spouse and your child may have some unrealistic expectations about what you will pay beyond the basics.

For example, you may expect to provide books and a meal plan -- but you may balk at paying for an off-campus apartment and furnishings when a dorm room is cheaper. A well-written divorce agreement can clearly communicate the limits of your willingness to pay unnecessary additional costs.

3. The type of school

Divorced parents often have to adjust their lifestyles a bit, so it isn't unreasonable to scale back your child's college expectations as well.

If your child is academically gifted, a private or ivy league university may easily be in reach due to scholarships. However, an average student may have to settle for a public college instead.

4. Any funds already set aside

If you've already established a 529 plan or another tax-free savings account for your child's college costs, it's important to document the plans for that money in your divorce decree. The ownership of the account may also be an issue that needs to be addressed.

Whatever your goals, it's often wise to work with a financial adviser -- not just a divorce lawyer -- to make sure that your child's educational needs are protected.

Source: CNBC, "How to keep your divorce from sabotaging your children's college education," Lorie Konish, accessed May 23, 2018

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