NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Let me begin by saying that the word "haggle" does NOT abbreviate to "hag" any more than the word "dicker" abbreviates to ... never mind. Regardless, it's a frustrating truth that years after most divorcing parents have signed their separation or divorce agreements, the subject of child-related costs is often a source of ongoing squabbles.
And whereas the emotional pain fades, and the custody issues become fewer, kids' expenses never do. They just seem to grow along with the kids until you hit the big one — college, which for most parents is the final but most treacherous challenge of all.
When you are drawing up your divorce agreement, think through all the big-ticket items---school tuition, summer camp, music lessons etc.--and how they will be covered. Beyond your state's legal requirements that apply to child support and expenses, there are options for negotiating who pays what. In a divorce agreement, major expenses — healthcare, childcare and education — are negotiated separately from general child support. And the more specifically the terms are laid out, the less room there is for argument.
"You want to avoid the fight over $100 here or there," says Barbara Rothberg, DSW, who works with divorcing couples to hammer out the gritty details of post-divorce parenting. "The cleaner the agreement, the better off you are," she likes to say. Rothberg favors the simplest formula possible. If both parents make more or less equal incomes, they often split the expenses 50/50. If one of you makes considerably more money, then the bread-winner agrees to take on the big-ticket expenses (i.e., medical, summer camp, private school), and you split all the rest down the middle. If the income of each spouse is something like 70-30, then you might logically split all child costs according to the same ratio. In many co-paying scenarios, it helps to open an account that each spouse deposits into monthly or quarterly, and out of which all the kids' bills get paid.
It helps to remember that even in the best of marriages, spouses often disagree about how much things like clothes or camp or computers should cost. In a divorce, you subtract the trust and communication, and that often creates some pretty sharp exchanges.
In break-ups where the husband has been the primary earner and the wife has been spending her time raising the kids, the acrimony can be particularly sharp. She insists on her right to make the majority of kid-related decisions the way she always has. Meanwhile, he no longer feels comfortable handing over a large chunk of money when he has no control over how it gets spent. "Husbands often tend to feel that child support payments are really payments to their ex-spouse," says Ani Mason, a collaborative divorce attorney in New York. And, Mason adds, since the couple no longer shares a financial future together, the man may feel his ex-wife has no incentive to be frugal. Some agreements stipulate that expenses under a certain amount can be decided by one spouse, but expenses over that amount need to be discussed.
"When discussions go on and on about a single relatively small expense," says Rothberg, "it's usually about something else." Spoken like a therapist, but probably true in many cases. Unless we are talking about college. Both Mason and Rothberg agree that college is its own separate major expense and needs to be discussed at the time of the split.
"Ideally, if there's enough money, it would be a good idea to set aside college funds now," says Mason. But the key is to work out clearly on paper how the responsibility will fall. In a majority of states, parents can be ordered by the court to help pay a child's college tuition. Enforcement of course, is another question, as many divorced parents know all too well. But a solidly drafted agreement will at least provide recourse: if one parent willfully defaults on his or her obligation, that person will have to pay his or her share plus the fee for both attorneys. The best bet for parents considering a split? Haggle or dicker now over the terms of your divorce agreement for the sake of greater peace down the road.
Elise Pettus is the founder of UNtied, a website for women navigating Separation and Divorce. Check out the site's free monthly info events.