Divorcing with College-Aged Children

Have you been unhappily married for some time, but you’ve been secretly putting off your divorce until your youngest child turned 18 or 19 and left the house go to college? If your answer is “yes,” then you have plenty of company. Many deeply unsatisfied spouses will sacrifice their personal happiness to ensure their children are raised in a two-parent household. Then, when their children head off to college, they file for divorce.

This phenomenon has been referred to as, “The Freshman Call” because it happens frequently. When most of us think of divorce impacting the family, we’re usually thinking about it affecting children ages 17 and below; however, that does not mean that it doesn’t affect adult children in college or who have already started families of their own.

If you are planning on filing for divorce, you may have not given much thought to how your adult children are going to react, especially if any of them are in college. While most freshman can’t wait to be independent and go to school in a different county or state, they still usually think of “home” fondly and as a place to stay during the summer and while visiting for the holidays. When parents drop the divorce bomb on college-aged children, they’re often unprepared for the strong emotions they receive from their kids. Here are some of the issues divorce can raise with college-aged children:

Blaming Themselves for the Divorce
Younger children tend to think they caused the divorce, while college-aged kids will feel guilty about not preventing the divorce, and about not recognizing the warning signs. If the kids were blindsided by the divorce, it can definitely cause them to question their own romantic relationships. They’ll often think, “I thought my parents’ marriage was fine. Does this mean it will happen to me?”

Losing Home as Their Safe Place
Most, but not all, college kids relish the idea of being on their own and away from home. During this time, they value “home” being a safe place to go during school breaks more than ever before. In a divorce, college kids can feel like they’ve lost home as a safe place, or they can be afraid that they’ll have nowhere to go if their parents sell their childhood home.

Accepting Mom or Dad’s New Partner
This can be a lot easier on younger children, but the opposite can occur for an older child, especially if he or she is defensive of the other parent and has a deep bond with him or her. If a parent in their 40s or 50s gets a divorce and starts dating someone new, the college-aged child can be warm and accepting, or they could go the other way and be distant and resentful. It all depends on the personalities involved and the individual circumstances.

Having to Split Time During Breaks
If the parents continued living in the same city, this may not be much of an issue but if Mom or Dad moves to another state, it could mean the college-aged child has to take turns spending breaks with his or her parents. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s essentially doubling the length of time between visits with each parent, so it can be upsetting for some college-aged children who are homesick.

Telling Your Adult Child About the Divorce

Your adult child may be 18 or 19, but that does not mean they can handle the divorce news without it hurting them. Our advice: Do not tell your child about the divorce over the phone. Do not tell them over Skype or FaceTime. Do not tell them while they’re visiting for home for their birthday or the holidays. If you do that, they’ll always equate that special day as the day they learned about their parents’ divorce.

If possible, tell them in person during a break (not a holiday break) and tell them when the three of you can sit down and have a conversation. Before you say anything, remember, this is going to be hard for your son or daughter to hear. Focus on your child, not the reasons why you’re filing for divorce (e.g. adultery, addiction, gambling, an online affair, growing apart, etc.). You can say things like, “We have decided to get a divorce. We fight all the time and can no longer continue living together. We realize that even though you’re not living home anymore, the divorce is still going to affect you.”

We suggest avoiding divorce litigation if possible. Instead, seek divorce mediation or a collaborative divorce, both of which support an amicable divorce. As you do this, be sure to have your divorce attorney address your college-aged child’s immediate concerns, such as college tuition, life insurance, and health insurance.

Although your child is technically an adult and no longer a concern of the family court system, you can still work out a marital settlement agreement that ensures his or her needs are met until they graduate school and become financially independent.

Keeping the Divorce Details Private

Your child may be a legal adult, but that does not mean that he or she needs to be fully informed of the details of your divorce. Your child may understand adult problems, but they don’t need to hear about any affairs or the details of your financial settlement. There’s nothing wrong with letting your children think the best of their parents despite the divorce.

Remember, as your child goes off the college, they’re adjusting to this new phase in their life, such as living on their own and possibly working at the same time. Be thoughtful about the timing of your announcement and help them focus on creating their future instead of worrying about yours.

To file for divorce in Los Angeles, contact Claery & Hammond, LLP today.