Author Topic: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested  (Read 11859 times)

BlueEyes

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My husband has 3 elementary-age kids with his ex wife. I was doing some planning before the end of the year and was getting ready to open 529 college savings accounts for the kids but it got me thinking. What happens if we get ordered to pay for college? We want to help but in no way would we be able to swing full tuitions for all three, or even half.

My husband was a financial train wreck after the divorce. He had cashed out a 401k to buy her a house, which she kept, meanwhile he got all the credit card debt and her student loan. He had negative assets coming into our marriage while I had positive. Yes, I knew what I was getting in to and we have turned it around. We keep semi-separate finances. We have a joint checking account to pay the mortgage and household bills but all savings and most of the retirement are mine (he has an IRA that I fund for him and a future pension.) Mostly because after CS, insurance, ex's student loan, kids' activities and his share of our living expenses, he doesn't have much left to save.

I feel like a terrible person and step mom for writing this, enough that I created a new account to ask this. :-(  But I also feel like I have a right to protect my assets. Should I keep all savings in my name? What about the 529s - open them in my name or my husband's? Maybe I have nothing to worry about? Does anyone have experience with this? Now the awful part. I want to ER the year the youngest leaves for college. Obviously if we have to pay more than we have saved for college I won't be able to.

Important data:
*We live in Indiana, where child support goes to 19. He pays approx $300 a week currently.

*Each kid should already be in college by the time they turn 19.

*It's my understanding she has until the 19th birthday of each kid to file for college expenses.

*Current support orders read that "both parties agree on the importance of post secondary education for the children" but no specifics on who would pay for what.

*All three of us (him, her, and I) make roughly the same salary - $50k.

*Neither him nor her had their own parents pay for their college, as evidenced by DH still paying for her student loans.

*If the two of them were still together I doubt they would financially have been able to pay for college expenses. They were pretty deeply in debt and I suspect she is again.

MayDay

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #1 on: November 09, 2014, 05:08:57 PM »
This seems like a "consult your lawyer" question. 

I could guess at the answers to all of your questions but other than "are you a bad person for wanting to shelter your own retirement savings from the kids" (answer is no, btw, IMO) every other question I think falls into the legal advice category. 

BlueEyes

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #2 on: November 09, 2014, 06:05:08 PM »
This seems like a "consult your lawyer" question. 

I could guess at the answers to all of your questions but other than "are you a bad person for wanting to shelter your own retirement savings from the kids" (answer is no, btw, IMO) every other question I think falls into the legal advice category.
Thank you. I appreciate you saying that.

And one of my questions was almost "should I talk to a lawyer?" But it seemed like I might be jumping the gun on that.

Gin1984

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #3 on: November 09, 2014, 07:23:37 PM »
Are you (and your husband) maxing out every tax advantage account you can?  401k, 403b, 457 and IRAs for both?  If not, I'd put the money in there instead.  Assume your husband will have to continue child support to the kids till they get out of college in your calcs, and you should be fine.

Cpa Cat

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #4 on: November 09, 2014, 07:30:46 PM »
I second the suggestion to max out all retirement accounts before even thinking about 529s.

You should plan for child support continuing beyond age 19. It's reasonable to expect to have to redirect the support amount to college expenses.

In my private plan (ie: not to be discussed with the ex), I would anticipate cutting off his retirement contributions during the years that the kids are in college and redirecting to college. I would build that into my savings plans as a sort of worst case scenario.

fartface

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #5 on: November 09, 2014, 07:42:51 PM »
Keep all your money and savings in your own name.

If/when the time comes that you can help these kids with college - great - withdraw from your surplus.

My own biological children's college funds are allocated this way.

What if your marriage doesn't work out? What if you have children of your own?

529 funds are not going to give you that big of a tax advantage. Your Roth, retirement and other investment vehicles can serve you better and give you more options.

GizmoTX

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #6 on: November 09, 2014, 08:38:08 PM »
I agree: max your retirement funds, both of you. No 529s.

"Both agree that college is important" sounds to me that both parties contribute. Of course you'll need legal advice if this happens. Also, there's a world of difference between in-state public universities vs out of state or private. Any payments should be made directly to the university, not the ex or child.

At age 18, your DH should be dealing directly with each of his children, with or without an order.

bogart

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #7 on: November 09, 2014, 08:40:01 PM »
I am reasonably certain that in terms of qualifying for financial aid, the kids can be identified as being the responsibility of either (not both) parent, and that parent's spouse (if any).  So they could either be your DH's + yours, or their mom's plus her then-spouse (if any).  With some planning, you (collectively) may be able to help them qualify for aid, though this may require looking at who claims them for taxes purposes the year before college and during college and working collaboratively to do that in the way that makes the most sense for the kids.

feelingroovy

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #8 on: November 09, 2014, 08:52:15 PM »
I would talk with your husband's lawyer and start investigating financial aid.

IIRC, the expected family contribution for financial aid is based on the custodial parent's household income and assets.  This includes step-parents and I doubt that having your assets in your name only will make any difference (if your husband has more than 50% custody).

Even so, EFC is calculated in such a way that you have to be pretty frugal to actually pay that much comfortably.  So I would expect that if colleges expect $X based on ex-wife's income and she is a spender, she's going to want your husband to cover half of it.  She may have to sue him to get it.  And it's separate from child support.  (At least it is in my state). 

I have a friend who married a widowed man with 3 teenagers.  She makes a lot more than he does, so while they had a wedding and consider themselves married, they didn't get legally married.  She said it was because her income would greatly lessen his kids' financial aid, putting it out of his reach without her helping.  She married him the year the first was leaving for college, so it's not like she raised them, and they didn't feel it fair that she be obligated to pay.

BlueEyes

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #9 on: November 10, 2014, 08:30:58 AM »
Wow, thank you all for the helpful advice.

Are you (and your husband) maxing out every tax advantage account you can?  401k, 403b, 457 and IRAs for both?  If not, I'd put the money in there instead.

I second the suggestion to max out all retirement accounts before even thinking about 529s.

529 funds are not going to give you that big of a tax advantage. Your Roth, retirement and other investment vehicles can serve you better and give you more options.

I agree: max your retirement funds, both of you. No 529s.

Ok, so the consensus seems to be to skip the 529s. Both hubby and I have defined benefit pensions. We both have fully funded IRAs. I just enrolled in my 457 and I will be maxing it next year. Hubby also has access to a 457 but I thought it would be better to only open one and max it, rather than have two, just to minimize fees. I guess I was thinking it would look better to have the 529s and when it came time for her to ask for money for college we could say, "Why, yes, we planned for this and have $X set aside for it".

My fear is that if she finds out any plans for us to retire early she will think we have money to burn and will want more.

At age 18, your DH should be dealing directly with each of his children, with or without an order.
This would be nice but child support goes until 19 here, at which point all kids should be in their first semester of college. We could potentially be paying child support to her while the kids are gone, on top of paying tuition.

I am reasonably certain that in terms of qualifying for financial aid, the kids can be identified as being the responsibility of either (not both) parent, and that parent's spouse (if any).  So they could either be your DH's + yours, or their mom's plus her then-spouse (if any).  With some planning, you (collectively) may be able to help them qualify for aid, though this may require looking at who claims them for taxes purposes the year before college and during college and working collaboratively to do that in the way that makes the most sense for the kids.

IIRC, the expected family contribution for financial aid is based on the custodial parent's household income and assets.  This includes step-parents and I doubt that having your assets in your name only will make any difference (if your husband has more than 50% custody).

He has less than 50% custody (unfortunately) and it's my understanding that FAFSA only looks at the custodial parent's assets and income (excluding primary home equity and retirement savings) including a step-parent's, if she were to marry. Private schools can use any formula they like to determine aid.

Keep all your money and savings in your own name.
What if your marriage doesn't work out? What if you have children of your own?
Well, no kids for me but yeah, no one wants to think about it but there's always the possibility it won't work out. Even if I keep everything in my name, I assume he'd still be entitled to half in the event of a divorce.

Sigh. I need to talk to my husband. And maybe make an appointment with his divorce attorney. I think he'll be okay with me wanting to protect my assets, but I know he will feel uncomfortable about "sheltering" his own.

Gin1984

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #10 on: November 10, 2014, 08:53:55 AM »
She may think that, but money in the 457s will be sheltered, under most conditions.  However, how much he would be required to pay would depend on the job he could have, not his current job-less status.  That is why I would include in the FIRE budget the $300 child support and whatever other support you give the kids.  For your husband, please explain that just because you shelter the money does not mean you would not help the kids.  All it means is you (both) chose how to help them, not his ex or a judge.

GizmoTX

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #11 on: November 10, 2014, 09:09:23 AM »
Definitely talk with the divorce attorney. If the ex files for college payment, I'd think your DH could file to convert child support to it and/or adjust the amount.

The test for tax dependent status of a full time college student hinges on who is paying 50+%, including the student.

I believe retirement accounts are not considered in FAFSA calculation, while 529 is. Also, what if a child doesn't go to college? You are stuck if funds are in a 529.

The issue of support is tricky regarding the future relationship between your DH & his children. I suspect some states have 19 to make sure children are out of HS before support ends. My father stopped paying support for my brother when he reached 18 because he could, even tho my brother still had a semester of HS left. That sent a bad & enduring message. However, college is different -- students should have some skin in the game.

DoubleDown

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #12 on: November 10, 2014, 09:31:42 AM »
I think I have an answer that both you and your husband will like: Create a postnuptial agreement, right now, stating that you will NOT be contributing towards your step-children's college expenses. This accomplishes two very important things:

1. It allows you to save towards your own financial well-being, which should be your first priority anyhow. I think just about any financial planner will tell you that you first need to finance your own retirement, then you can contribute towards college to the extent you are able.

2. It will completely exclude your income and assets from any financial aid determinations. When you file for financial aid, make sure to tell the financial aid office about the postnuptial agreement, and tell them you want the kids' need determination to be specially calculated using only your husband's info. This works. This was done in my own case (had a step-father who refused to pay and therefore ended up with a very favorable need determination), and I worked as a financial aid counselor myself. But you have to be sure to let the financial aid office know, and document it in a postnuptial agreement so it will be an open/shut case for the financial aid office. If you do not let them know, they will just do the computerized determination based on both your assets/income.

Also, you are not a bad person for not paying for step-children's college. You have no obligation to do so. Hell, a lot of biological parents legitimately don't feel they have an obligation.

Dee18

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #13 on: November 10, 2014, 11:08:33 AM »
As a middle aged Mustachian I have several close friends dealing with this issue.  Many commenters have already given the best advice, max out all retirement accounts.  I would not open 529 accounts because they would be considered 100% available to the kids.  You do not yet know what the future holds for them or for you and your husband.  (Does your husband understand you are funding your 457 more than his?). Understand, and try to accept, that while your husband may have no legal obligation to pay for college, his kids will expect him to contribute to the extent he can and probably be quite angry if he does not.  If the kids seem like they will take college seriously, he will probably want to help them.  Yes, this may mean delaying retirement, at least for your husband....many people do that to send their kids to college.  Yes, it is a much more complicated situation than when kids' parents are married and on the same page.  I would think carefully about what relationship you want with these children, too.

BlueEyes

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #14 on: November 10, 2014, 12:29:09 PM »
She may think that, but money in the 457s will be sheltered, under most conditions.  However, how much he would be required to pay would depend on the job he could have, not his current job-less status.  That is why I would include in the FIRE budget the $300 child support and whatever other support you give the kids.  For your husband, please explain that just because you shelter the money does not mean you would not help the kids.  All it means is you (both) chose how to help them, not his ex or a judge.
Thanks. Yes, all retirement savings should be sheltered. I guess I'm more concerned that we would be forced to work 4 years past my desired FIRE date. Our planned retirement is just after the youngest should leave for college. So, unfortunately, even if we had custody at the time, we would not be able to use our retirement financials to qualify for aid. Still, if their mom remains unmarried and underemployed, they may qualify for quite a bit.

Definitely talk with the divorce attorney. If the ex files for college payment, I'd think your DH could file to convert child support to it and/or adjust the amount.

The test for tax dependent status of a full time college student hinges on who is paying 50+%, including the student.

Also, what if a child doesn't go to college? You are stuck if funds are in a 529.

The issue of support is tricky regarding the future relationship between your DH & his children. I suspect some states have 19 to make sure children are out of HS before support ends.

Converting child support to tuition is reasonable and it would really only impact us for 4 years post FIRE, so that could be worked into the plan.

Well, I figure at least one out of the three will go to college and 529s are transferable between beneficiaries. But, yea, I see your point.

Child support used to go up to 21 here but was changed to 19 a few years ago. Seems reasonable. Even if were 18 we would pay until something like HS graduation + 3 months. Only fair.

I think I have an answer that both you and your husband will like: Create a postnuptial agreement, right now, stating that you will NOT be contributing towards your step-children's college expenses. This accomplishes two very important things:

1. It allows you to save towards your own financial well-being, which should be your first priority anyhow. I think just about any financial planner will tell you that you first need to finance your own retirement, then you can contribute towards college to the extent you are able.

2. It will completely exclude your income and assets from any financial aid determinations. When you file for financial aid, make sure to tell the financial aid office about the postnuptial agreement, and tell them you want the kids' need determination to be specially calculated using only your husband's info. This works. This was done in my own case (had a step-father who refused to pay and therefore ended up with a very favorable need determination), and I worked as a financial aid counselor myself. But you have to be sure to let the financial aid office know, and document it in a postnuptial agreement so it will be an open/shut case for the financial aid office. If you do not let them know, they will just do the computerized determination based on both your assets/income.

Also, you are not a bad person for not paying for step-children's college. You have no obligation to do so. Hell, a lot of biological parents legitimately don't feel they have an obligation.

Ooh, this is interesting! I, too, had a stepfather who refused to pay, and who made way too much for me to eligible for any financial aid. I was very fortunate that I had merit scholarships for almost my complete tuition. I had a small loan for the rest.

As a middle aged Mustachian I have several close friends dealing with this issue.  Many commenters have already given the best advice, max out all retirement accounts.  I would not open 529 accounts because they would be considered 100% available to the kids.  You do not yet know what the future holds for them or for you and your husband.  (Does your husband understand you are funding your 457 more than his?). Understand, and try to accept, that while your husband may have no legal obligation to pay for college, his kids will expect him to contribute to the extent he can and probably be quite angry if he does not.  If the kids seem like they will take college seriously, he will probably want to help them.  Yes, this may mean delaying retirement, at least for your husband....many people do that to send their kids to college.  Yes, it is a much more complicated situation than when kids' parents are married and on the same page.  I would think carefully about what relationship you want with these children, too.
I do really care about the kids and I want them to have a better situation than I had. My husband tries to teach them about money, responsibility, etc. They are very clear that dad has "no money". They probably assume their mom is rich since she takes them to Disney and cruises every year, but I digress.

Ha, yes my husband knows I am funding my 457 and not his. He has said before that if he hadn't married me he would be living in a van down by the river.

Gin1984

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #15 on: November 10, 2014, 01:04:36 PM »
She may think that, but money in the 457s will be sheltered, under most conditions.  However, how much he would be required to pay would depend on the job he could have, not his current job-less status.  That is why I would include in the FIRE budget the $300 child support and whatever other support you give the kids.  For your husband, please explain that just because you shelter the money does not mean you would not help the kids.  All it means is you (both) chose how to help them, not his ex or a judge.
Thanks. Yes, all retirement savings should be sheltered. I guess I'm more concerned that we would be forced to work 4 years past my desired FIRE date. Our planned retirement is just after the youngest should leave for college. So, unfortunately, even if we had custody at the time, we would not be able to use our retirement financials to qualify for aid. Still, if their mom remains unmarried and underemployed, they may qualify for quite a bit.

Would it take you working the additional 4 years just to pay the $300 plus what ever expenses you pay?  Or could you save that cost in 2 years?  So basically work a bit longer, or he just does, but still early retirement.

BlueEyes

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #16 on: November 10, 2014, 01:45:24 PM »
She may think that, but money in the 457s will be sheltered, under most conditions.  However, how much he would be required to pay would depend on the job he could have, not his current job-less status.  That is why I would include in the FIRE budget the $300 child support and whatever other support you give the kids.  For your husband, please explain that just because you shelter the money does not mean you would not help the kids.  All it means is you (both) chose how to help them, not his ex or a judge.
Thanks. Yes, all retirement savings should be sheltered. I guess I'm more concerned that we would be forced to work 4 years past my desired FIRE date. Our planned retirement is just after the youngest should leave for college. So, unfortunately, even if we had custody at the time, we would not be able to use our retirement financials to qualify for aid. Still, if their mom remains unmarried and underemployed, they may qualify for quite a bit.

Would it take you working the additional 4 years just to pay the $300 plus what ever expenses you pay?  Or could you save that cost in 2 years?  So basically work a bit longer, or he just does, but still early retirement.

If it's "just" the $300 a week, converted from CS to college expenses until the youngest graduates I calculate that out to be about $60k from when I want to fire until the youngest graduates. Less if it decreases down as the older ones graduate, right? So, no, it wouldn't take all 4 years. I guess the unknown is just scary - having no idea what we will be expected to contribute makes it difficult to plan.

Ok. So if the 529 is a bad idea, let's say husband has an expressed a desire to start saving some of his own money. He's getting a small cost of living raise in January and we had talked about him saving it. When I enrolled in my 457 he asked if he should too but I thought the fees were prohibitive for the 3% he was going to contribute. Should I rethink this? Then my idea was for him to fund the 529s instead but I do see some pitfalls in this. I could direct this to his IRA instead of me funding it. Is this a better idea?

Gin1984

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #17 on: November 10, 2014, 01:53:52 PM »
She may think that, but money in the 457s will be sheltered, under most conditions.  However, how much he would be required to pay would depend on the job he could have, not his current job-less status.  That is why I would include in the FIRE budget the $300 child support and whatever other support you give the kids.  For your husband, please explain that just because you shelter the money does not mean you would not help the kids.  All it means is you (both) chose how to help them, not his ex or a judge.
Thanks. Yes, all retirement savings should be sheltered. I guess I'm more concerned that we would be forced to work 4 years past my desired FIRE date. Our planned retirement is just after the youngest should leave for college. So, unfortunately, even if we had custody at the time, we would not be able to use our retirement financials to qualify for aid. Still, if their mom remains unmarried and underemployed, they may qualify for quite a bit.

Would it take you working the additional 4 years just to pay the $300 plus what ever expenses you pay?  Or could you save that cost in 2 years?  So basically work a bit longer, or he just does, but still early retirement.

If it's "just" the $300 a week, converted from CS to college expenses until the youngest graduates I calculate that out to be about $60k from when I want to fire until the youngest graduates. Less if it decreases down as the older ones graduate, right? So, no, it wouldn't take all 4 years. I guess the unknown is just scary - having no idea what we will be expected to contribute makes it difficult to plan.

Ok. So if the 529 is a bad idea, let's say husband has an expressed a desire to start saving some of his own money. He's getting a small cost of living raise in January and we had talked about him saving it. When I enrolled in my 457 he asked if he should too but I thought the fees were prohibitive for the 3% he was going to contribute. Should I rethink this? Then my idea was for him to fund the 529s instead but I do see some pitfalls in this. I could direct this to his IRA instead of me funding it. Is this a better idea?
Well you said you would be maxing out your 457 next year right?  If you are maxing out yours, plus maxing out his IRA, why not max your IRA out instead and have him fund his own IRA?

BlueEyes

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #18 on: November 10, 2014, 02:09:50 PM »
Ok. So if the 529 is a bad idea, let's say husband has an expressed a desire to start saving some of his own money. He's getting a small cost of living raise in January and we had talked about him saving it. When I enrolled in my 457 he asked if he should too but I thought the fees were prohibitive for the 3% he was going to contribute. Should I rethink this? Then my idea was for him to fund the 529s instead but I do see some pitfalls in this. I could direct this to his IRA instead of me funding it. Is this a better idea?
Well you said you would be maxing out your 457 next year right?  If you are maxing out yours, plus maxing out his IRA, why not max your IRA out instead and have him fund his own IRA?
I think this is what I will suggest. Thank you for all your help. It is very much appreciated.

ETA this year I fully funded my IRA from my personal funds. I funded his via a combination of my personal funds and our joint account. But if it could come from all his, or even mostly his, this makes more sense. Also, if the worst were to happen and we divorced, he could walk with his IRA and I wouldn't have to resent it because I put the money in there.
« Last Edit: November 10, 2014, 02:16:43 PM by BlueEyes »

Gin1984

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #19 on: November 10, 2014, 02:35:00 PM »
Ok. So if the 529 is a bad idea, let's say husband has an expressed a desire to start saving some of his own money. He's getting a small cost of living raise in January and we had talked about him saving it. When I enrolled in my 457 he asked if he should too but I thought the fees were prohibitive for the 3% he was going to contribute. Should I rethink this? Then my idea was for him to fund the 529s instead but I do see some pitfalls in this. I could direct this to his IRA instead of me funding it. Is this a better idea?
Well you said you would be maxing out your 457 next year right?  If you are maxing out yours, plus maxing out his IRA, why not max your IRA out instead and have him fund his own IRA?
I think this is what I will suggest. Thank you for all your help. It is very much appreciated.

ETA this year I fully funded my IRA from my personal funds. I funded his via a combination of my personal funds and our joint account. But if it could come from all his, or even mostly his, this makes more sense. Also, if the worst were to happen and we divorced, he could walk with his IRA and I wouldn't have to resent it because I put the money in there.
The other option, since you are funding your IRA, is to fund his 457 with the 3%.  Even with the fees, it likely is worth it.

feelingroovy

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Re: Advice regarding paying for step-kids' future college expenses requested
« Reply #20 on: November 10, 2014, 04:44:19 PM »
Understand, and try to accept, that while your husband may have no legal obligation to pay for college, his kids will expect him to contribute to the extent he can and probably be quite angry if he does not. 

I would just like to suggest that you keep talking to the kids about what you will or won't do (above and beyond what is legally obligated).

Knowing that Dad is willing and able to contribute a specific amount (even if it's 0) tempers their expectations and allows them to make reasonable decisions.

My father, who made more than double my mom's income, did everything he could do get out of paying for college and only paid anything after my mother sued repeatedly.  It created some really bad blood.  It is only 20 years later that I understand that he never had any intention of paying a cent.  I now realize he is a spendthrift and I'm sure he truly believed he couldn't afford it.  (He can't live on his generous pension and is still working part time in retirement and living with a relative). But he never once said anything one way or another, so we never expected he would just give us nothing.

FWIW, my oldest is just entering high school and we're in a similar boat.  We should be able to retire just as the youngest is starting college.  We don't have an ex in the picture, but even so, it's extremely difficult to plan when you have no idea what it's going to cost.  I'm basing all my projections on state school costs, but who knows what will ultimately happen?   We are also going with the strategy of fully funding retirement accounts, knowing that we can afford to cash flow about half and will have enough in Roths for the rest.