Child’s College Expenses and Marital Debt in Divorce

When couples in divorce proceedings have disputes over who should get what, they aren’t always arguing over something they both want. There are often disputes over who will be stuck with the things that neither spouse wants to hold on to – their debts and responsibilities.

One issue that comes up frequently in divorce cases is the responsibility to pay for a child’s college expenses. If Parent A and Parent B get divorced, and afterward their child enrolls in college, Parent A may expect Parent B to help cover the cost of college expenses. What happens, then, if Parent B refuses?

Unfortunately for Parent A – and the child – Florida courts will not usually require an unwilling parent to pay for his or her child’s college expenses. There is an exception, though, for parents who previously agreed that they would both pay for the expenses.

Wagner vs. Wagner – A New Development

Recently, the case of Wagner vs. Wagner added a new wrinkle to this issue. The case involved a wife who told her husband that she was planning on filing for divorce – and then followed through a week later, by filing a petition for dissolution. In between those two events, the husband charged more than $13,500 to their credit cards, in order to pay for college expenses for their daughter.

In court, the wife argued that her husband should be held solely accountable for paying off this debt. She claimed that she never agreed to pay for her daughter’s college expenses, and that she had in fact told her daughter to pay for college herself with loans. She also claimed that her husband never even discussed the charges with her before making them.

The husband argued that the credit card charges should be split evenly between him and his wife. He told a very different story, claiming that both he and his wife had told their daughter that they would help her with some of her college expenses. He explained the timing of the charges by saying that he had received a bill for his daughter’s tuition, and that he needed to pay the amount right away or else she would be unable to enroll.

The Verdict

The trial court sided with the wife, and ruled that the credit card charges were a non-marital debt – meaning that the debt was not the responsibility of both spouses. The court ruled that it did not have the authority to require a parent to pay for college expenses, and that the timing of the charges made it inappropriate to assign the wife any responsibility for them.

But recently, the trial court’s decision was overturned by a Florida District Court, which ruled that the debt should be shared equally between the spouses. This ruling stated that because the charges were made before the petition for dissolution was filed, they should be considered a marital debt. The ruling also stated that the rule that parents cannot be held responsible for their children’s college expenses only applies when the expenses are incurred after the petition for dissolution is filed.

What Does This Ruling Mean For My Case?

If you are in involved a divorce, or even just considering one, this case has several important takeaways.

One is that even though parents in Florida are not usually required to help pay their children’s college expenses, this doesn’t mean they can’t be held responsible for some of those expenses. Debts for children’s college expenses can be assigned to both parents if one parent incurred the debt while they were married.

Also, this case tells us that there are circumstances in which a spouse can rack up significant debt in the final days of the marriage, and this debt will be split between the two spouses as marital debt. This can take place even if the spouse who incurred the debt knew fully well that the marriage was about to end.

However, this does not mean that when a spouse becomes aware that a divorce is pending, he or she can go on a shopping spree with their joint credit cards, and be certain that some of the debt will go to the other spouse.

You see, Florida courts follow the principle of equitable distribution, in which the guiding principle is fairness. This means that while Florida courts will generally divide marital assets and liabilities equally, they will divide them unequally if they determine that fairness requires it.

Florida’s statute on equitable distribution lists certain factors that courts should take into account when deciding how marital assets and liabilities are divided. One of these factors is whether either spouse has engaged in “intentional dissipation, waste, depletion or destruction of marital assets after the filing of the petition, or within 2 years prior to the filing of the petition,”

In other words, if the court finds that you have intentionally thrown money away in anticipation of divorce, it could mean bad news for you when the court assigns you your share of the marital debts. Fortunately for the husband in Wagner vs. Wagner, the Florida court system did not determine that his payment of his daughter’s college expenses constituted intentional waste.

If You Have Concerns About How College Costs Will Be Handled in Your Divorce

With college tuition costs being exceptionally high, it is important to do all you can to ensure that these costs will be handled in a way that you approve of. If you are married, and you would like assurance that your spouse will not change his or her mind about your plans regarding your children’s tuition expenses, you should consider consulting an attorney. An experienced family law attorney can help you create an agreement that will be binding, even in the event that you divorce.