How much should divorced, separated parents pay in back-to-school costs?

WASHINGTON — Going back to school can be stressful for children and expensive for their parents — especially when parents are divorced or separating.

“Going back to school is not only anxiety-producing for the children, but also for the parents as well,” said family law attorney Alan Plevy, of SmolenPlevy, of Tysons, Virginia.

Not to mention expensive, with estimates of $600 per child for supplies and activity fees.

Plevy says expenses go far beyond notebooks and pencils.

“Backpacks, and computers, and printers, and a lot of electronic stuff children use today,” he said.

And court-ordered child support doesn’t cover the costs of back-to-school.

“Child support generally encompasses putting a roof over the children’s head, utilities, food, clothing, and transportation,” Plevy said.

For parents in troubled marriages struggling to provide normalcy for their children, “This actually forces the parents to come together and try to talk about these expenses,” Plevy said.

“Sometimes they’re able to do it, sometimes they’re not, but if they’re not it’s really the children who suffer.”

Plevy says there are typically two ways parents can decide to handle back-to-school expenses: Split the expenses down the middle, or use the same income ratios often used for reimbursement for medical expenses.

“For instance, one parent may have 66 percent of the income, so one parent pays 66 percent of the cost, and the other pays 33 percent of the cost.”

Another challenge is when one parent balks at paying for extracurricular activities, including purchasing musical instruments and lessons, or team sports.

“I’ve been involved in cases where one parent says ‘No, I’m not going to pay for that,’ and the other can’t afford to pay for it, and the child doesn’t get to be involved in the activity,” Plevy said. “Often one parent ends ups saying ‘I really want the child involved, so I’ll pay for the cost, whether you will or will not.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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