At the end of every summer children head back to school, and inevitably, some divorced parents wind up fighting over the cost of school supplies, new clothes and other related expenses. How you handle this legally has more to do with your divorce decree than anything. The more specific your agreement, the better.
Splitting Educational Expenses or Splitting Hairs
It’s common for decrees to have a vague statement pertaining to splitting educational expenses, without spelling out what that means in detail. It’s not surprising parents wind up feeling differently about what “educational expenses” entail. Even the federal government uses two separate definitions for the purpose of filling out your taxes depending on their purpose.
Obviously, the costs involved in heading back to school are in addition to normal care. They come up once a year versus every month, and they can amount to a hefty purchase. A pack of good pencils might cost $7, but when combined with everything else on the supply list, you could be racking up quite a bill. Clothes and new shoes, often required for gym and other special activities can be a major expense by itself.
It’s not hard to understand why some custodial parents would ask the non-custodial parent to split these expenes. However, it might not be legally required. The question is whether educational expenses are listed in your divorce agreement, and how specific the agreement is in terms of what they include.
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Depending on the way the divorce decree is interpreted, “educational expenses” could pertain to one, some, all or none of the following:
fees charged by the school
tutoring or prep classes
field trip fees and class trip expenses
requested supplies, including special clothing
new clothes and shoes
cost of meals and transportation
Decrees generally deal with extracurriculars and college expenses separately.
Buying More Than the Required Supplies
By far, the biggest school supply battle is buying supplies above and beyond what’s on the list. Some parents get the bare minimum, down to generic 1-ply tissues. These are often the same type of parents who nitpick every item purchased by their ex.
It’s true. You could probably go shopping without the kids and save a bundle, but taking them along helps them get excited about going back to school. A sparkly pink binder or 64-pack of colored pencils might seem extravagant at first, but it’s a small price to pay when you consider your kids are giving up the freedom that comes with summer vacation.
Instead of focusing on the list, look at average expenses for families in your area. How much are your children’s friends’ parents spending? Ask — or ask Siri or Alexa. By the end of June, many state retail associations have already worked the numbers. In Iowa, for instance, parents were expected to pay the following on average for 2018:
$286 on clothing
$112 on school supplies
In addition, 1 in 4 families was expected to buy an electronic device, like a Texas Instrument calculator or tablet for classes.
A simple solution is to agree to pay half of those projected costs.
When You Don’t Trust Your Ex With Money
Unfortunately, there are many dads out there who know money given to an ex won’t go to sparkly notebooks or even new shoes. Even reimbursement can be tricky, as supplies might be returned for a refund.
If that is a reasonable fear, take your child shopping. Turn it into a fun night together. Go home, take everything out of the package and label what you can. Take tags off of clothes and wash them. Send copies of your receipts to your ex to prove you’ve invested at least half of what was expected.
It’s not unusual to find that child support isn’t enough to cover big yearly costs like school supply shopping in addition to the regular monthly expenses its intended to cover. Both parents should expect to pitch in to make sure their kids have the motivation and ability to succeed in school once summer is over.
To navigate these and other tricky situations, see They’re Your Kids Too: The Single Father’s Guide to Defending Your Fatherhood in a Broken Family Lawn System.
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