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Our Monthly Tip, as featured in Family Lawyer Magazine:

Starting college is an exciting time for parents and children alike, but there are many details to consider – especially for children of divorce.

When entering college as a freshman, the logistics and corresponding emotions attached to decisions can be overwhelming—not only for the student but the family at large. From choosing the college to settling in with roommates, finalizing the inaugural class course load to adjusting to a new school setting, and then managing all the details attached to paying tuition and associated costs, entering the world of higher education requires you to devote a lot of attention and energy to decisions that impact this important life cycle moment. Because of the onslaught of choices presented during this process, some details during the college years can be overlooked in divorced households.  

5 Important Tips for Divorced Parents as Their Children Enter College

1. Talk to your kids about signing health care and financial documents

Traditional-aged undergraduate students (ages 18-24) continue to represent a significant number of first year undergraduates. Since many of these students will cross over to the age of majority during college, there may be a fundamental shift from what a divorce decree or legal custody agreement dictates for minors regarding access to information, records, and decisions for the student. This change in legal status, when layered over the possibility that a student might become incapacitated or ill while at college, should prompt divorced co-parents and their children to discuss several documents the student can sign before arriving on campus. These documents include:

  • Health care proxy, which allows a parent to make health care decisions on a student’s behalf when needed
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) authorization, which allows a parent access to medical records
  • Financial power of attorney to facilitate financial decisions
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) authorization to gain access to educational details and records

Divorce can complicate the choice of whether one or both parents should be designated in these documents. Discussing and agreeing to these decisions in advance can help prevent conflict later.

2. Pay close attention to the college bill and the financial aid process

Line-items on the college bill can also get lost in the moment. For some colleges, there is an automatic opt-in for their health care insurance. Depending on the health insurance provided by the parents—which may be governed by terms of a settlement agreement or divorce decree—the college health insurance could be an unnecessary expense that requires an affirmative opt-out. It also pays to be alert to other potential overcharges. For example, there could be charges to meal plans over and above what the student will utilize, or parking permit fees, even though the student does not plan to bring an automobile to school. If the student has reached the age of majority, one or both parents will need a FERPA release from the student to discuss the particulars of the bill and financial information with the college.

There have also been recent changes to the Free Application Form for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that impact divorced families. Previously, the parent with whom the child lived with most of the year (who could be the lower income parent) was responsible for filing the FAFSA. Starting with the 2023-2024 academic cycle (the FAFSA that opens October 1, 2022), the parent who provided the most financial support to the child completes the FAFSA, irrespective of how much time the child spent living with that parent. This change in FAFSA filing could have financial aid and award implications if the income and assets of the parent providing the most financial support are greater than the parent with whom the child lived most of the year.

3. Review crime statistics

Whether on-campus or off-campus, living away from home can be an exciting proposition for college students—but it can also be a source of worry for parents. Divorced parents should review the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security database; they can also request a college’s Annual Security Report or even review a crime mapping and analysis report from a municipality to prompt a conversation with their child about the importance of being aware of their surroundings.

4. Follow up with children on their medications

Recent trends indicate that there are a growing number of college students who utilize prescription drugs. On occasion, students can misuse these drugs by sharing them with other students or deciding (without a physician’s consultation) to stop taking them. Divorced parents should collaborate to convey consistent messaging to their children about the importance of following doctors’ advice.

5. Review child support agreements for minor children entering college

Unless built into settlement agreements or court decrees, for children who go away to college, the change in living situation may lead to conversations about modifying child support since the child is no longer living with the custodial parent full time. This is especially crucial for the parent receiving child support, who may receive a nasty shock if their support is reduced to a trickle on September 1.

Even though the college life cycle for undergraduate students is such an exciting time for the whole family, it certainly requires an eye on many details, especially for children of divorce.

This article is for general information only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation for the sale of any financial product, service, or other professional advice. Wilmington Trust does not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Professional advice always requires consideration of individual circumstances.

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