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How to Provide for the Kids Post-Divorce

Elizabeth Alterman,|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 7 May 2012 | 9:32 AM ET
Purestock  | Getty Images

If you think providing for your children after divorce is basically about diapers, dentistry, and diplomas, you're in for a life of surprises.

Whether you’re supporting preschoolers or those who have returned home after college, experts say preparing for any scenario and putting everything in writing is the best way to defuse potentially explosive situations in the future.

Helene Bernstein, a Brooklyn-based divorce attorney with more than 20 years of experience in family law, says even small items can cause big problems.

“Little things that couples argue about and they don’t think of is who pays for the children’s clothing? Does the clothing travel with the child? Who pays for the birthday gifts? They get expensive. When they’re little, they go to a lot of parties,” Bernstein says.

Other considerations such as orthodontia or therapy, should the child need them, are important to take into account. If a child is diagnosed with a medical condition, parents should think about how they would handle treatment and the possibility of unreimbursed medical expenses.

“When a child has attention deficit disorder a lot of people disagree on whether medication should be administered, and that’s a really big thing,” Bernstein adds.

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The lawyer and mediator recommends that parents renegotiate their agreements every few years because children’s needs change as they get older. One thing she advises clients do immediately is change their beneficiary information.


Growing Pains

Lili Vasileff, certified financial planner and president of the National Association of Divorce Financial Planners, in Greenwich, Conn., says that while basic child-related expenses are included in a budget intake form that is part of divorce negotiation, many people don’t think to plan beyond their child’s current age.

“If you’ve got a 3-year old, when they’re 16 they’ve got driver’s ed, auto insurance, or the prom,” Vasileff says. “Bar mitzvahs, or let’s go a bit farther, college applications are like $250 a pop, and who’s going to pay for the child traveling to go see those colleges? All the things that are prospective, that occur on an if-and-when basis, are generally left unaddressed. It’s up to the parents to discuss how to address those costs. Leaving it open results in a lot of misunderstanding, miscommunication and acrimony.”

Jeff Landers, founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors, LLC, agrees. He says if a child has been taking violin lessons or gymnastics and the money is there, most courts will try to maintain the status quo for kids. However, there are plenty of gray areas within those extra-curriculars that can cause trouble.

“You can choose an $8,000 summer camp or go to the Y. If you talk just about the nature of the expense but not the character of it, then you’re setting yourself up for all future arguments which the child realizes that they’re the cause of, and that is very, very difficult,” adds Vasileff. “Unless you’re working with an expert during this process who can really pull the threads on each one of these areas to help you think in the future or at least has enough experience to say, 'these are the things that can come up,' how are you going to address these things head-on when they happen?”

Jodi Paige, a divorced mother of two, says she and her ex-husband agreed on the number of enrichment activities that will be covered and have a contingency plan in place for dividing expenses beyond that number.

“I pay for the first two classes and then anything else that they want to do, my ex pays 50 percent of the cost of that,” says Paige. “The state guidelines are pretty low, so if you live in an area where classes are more expensive, make sure your agreement reflects that.”

The College Years

While big-ticket items such as college tuition may seem fairly straight forward, the devil is in the details, say financial planners who specialize in divorce.

Landers says it’s essential to ask what’s included because if you don’t negotiate it up front, then “good luck trying to get it after the fact.”

“Is room and board included? Is a computer for the child’s use included in that? Does it include traveling back and forth?” Landers says. “You really need to get into the nitty-gritty details, and I’ve seen some agreements that will state, ‘I will pay for a state school but if the kid wants to go to a private school or an Ivy League, not my problem.’ A parent may say I’m not going pay unless the child maintains a 3.0 GPA, since it’s not a legal requirement, it’s very much up to the negotiations between the parties.”

He adds that some agreements may include a “cap,” whereby a parent will be on the hook for no more than the state university charges.

Boomerang Bucks

Paige also recommends including a stipulation that if one parent’s finances significantly improve, the amount contributed toward college be raised accordingly.

“Situations change, and everything needs to be very much spelled out,” she says.

The Boomerang Generation

Vasileff points out that even after paying for college, many parents are still supporting their adult children.

The good news, she says, is under Obama healthcare, coverage continues until age 26. But parents usually don’t think about is who is going to pay for an adult child’s healthcare should he or she be unemployed.

Vasileff says the boomerang generation, the group of adults who return home to live, poses a whole new set of issues for divorced parents.

“When you have adult boomerang children who come back to live with you, how do you set the rules? Are they supposed to pay rent; are you supposed to pay for their groceries?” she asks.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, the number of men ages 25-34 living with their parents grew from 14 to 19 percent between 2005 and 2011; the number of women rose from 8 to 10 percent.

While most people to some extent address the cost of college, Vasileff says few plan for those kids who take a year off or return home without any plans to leave.

Second-Family Complications

Experts agree that counseling for all parties also bears consideration. Providing the least disruptive environment possible is also important.

We got an apartment and for the first nine months, my ex-husband and I went back and forth and the kids stayed in the house,” explains Paige, who's been divorced since 2006. “It was important for them not to leave their safety zone and we got a feeling for how tiring and crappy that was. It’s a good perspective thing for parents.”

Vasileff also recommends parties discuss what would happen in the event that one or both parents have new families, which she says is something very few people think about unless one party already has a serious new partner.

Paige suggests discussing what will be left to the children after the parents are deceased, especially if children from new marriages enter the picture.

“Don’t leave things vague. Things change, especially when a person gets a new significant other,” Paige says.

While no one can see into the future, anticipating expenses and deciding how to divide them can make things a lot less contentious down the line.