- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

As I sat in my 12th-grade son’s high school auditorium for a financial aid presentation recently, my other son sent me a text message saying he was looking online for the best local corn mazes. Great, I thought, both of us will be testing our skills and patience.

When the presenter explained stepparents are almost always held financially responsible for their stepchildren when it comes to financial aid for college, another seemingly remarried parent let out a huge sigh.

This means a stepfather whose wife is the custodial parent of her high school senior must report his income and assets on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form for the stepchild to receive federal financial aid, and most state and college aid, too. The stepfather, however, has no right to obtain the stepchild’s school records or grades. This same stepfather must report his income and assets even if he doesn’t intend to pay for any of the college education. Furthermore, pre-existing court orders or prenuptial agreements have no bearing.

The rationale behind the federal government counting a stepparent’s pay toward college education is that it looks at the family’s complete financial picture. It assumes the stepparent is contributing to the family’s finances somehow, whether it’s the mortgage, utilities, food, etc.

Meanwhile, if there is an ex-husband in the picture who doesn’t make as much money, his lower income makes no difference because it isn’t included in the calculations. In fact, if a remarried woman (whose husband makes more money than her ex) and her ex agree to pay for their child’s college without the stepfather’s assistance, they may end up paying more than if she hadn’t remarried. As the speaker jokingly said, “The golden rule is: Never get remarried if you have a student going to college.” And, he added, “If you’re thinking about getting divorced, get divorced now.”

In all seriousness, Herm Davis, executive director of College Financial Aid Planning Services in Rockville, strongly urges keeping the ex involved in the college planning process. Mr. Davis points out, “There is a lot more to financial aid planning than filling out the FAFSA form; parents need to talk more about financial planning.” For example, beyond the FAFSA form, many private colleges require an additional profile form that may ask for the noncustodial parent’s financial information, too. Seeking advice from professionals may save you a great amount of money in the long run.

“After divorce, the best guarantee one has for the other parent to pay college costs is a good relationship right from the start,” says Hadrian Hatfield, a family law attorney with Shulman Rogers in Potomac. “Expenses related to college can be just one more cost of letting emotional baggage invade decision-making.”

In Maryland, the court has no authority to award support for college costs, so as difficult as it may be, “planning ahead and working together with your ex can be very beneficial not only for your children, but for your own finances, health and well-being,” he says.

This can be extremely difficult; after all, if you had had a good relationship, you may not have gotten divorced in the first place.

“It is possible to address college costs at the time of divorce, but it can be difficult to do and takes a lot of planning,” Mr. Hatfield says.

When I think back to what concerned me the most when I was getting divorced 10 years ago, college education was not at the forefront of my mind. Instead, there was too much emphasis on the wrong things, such as getting one more overnight with my children.

In hindsight, I wish we had had a lot more civil discussions about planning my children’s futures, including details such as planning opportunities for student aid and discussions about defining a cap for parents’ contributions. During that time, however the thought of remarriage wasn’t even on my planet, yet alone in my mind, and I am positive FAFSA wasn’t in my vocabulary.

While I can’t go back and I choose to be in the much healthier place that is my present, my hope is that others can crawl through these challenging mazes with a little more ease.

Paula Bisacre, founder of Remarriage LLC, is the publisher and executive editor of reMarriage magazine (www.remarriagemagazine.com), a quarterly publication that provides practical solutions for the growing remarriage community. She can be reached at [email protected]

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