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Income decline after divorce affects a child’s educational future

SALT LAKE CITY — A recent study has found the negative financial repercussions of divorce substantially deter many white children from going to college. By contrast, the study did not find that divorce lowers educational attainment for nonwhite children.

White families are often more economically advantaged than nonwhite families, so the resource loss for a divorcing white family is often more substantial, the study's authors found.

The study, published in Sociological Science, concludes that a decline in family income because of divorce results in “one- to two-thirds” of the negative effect divorce has on educational outcomes for white children. Other things like social, behavioral and thinking skills have minimal impact on a child’s future education when compared to the role of income change after a divorce, it finds.

While this research reinforces the realities of the socioeconomic influence on educational opportunity in the U.S., it also raises questions about the causes of this post-divorce income change and whether families can do anything about it.

Unstable employment is the source of divorce’s financial aftermath for some families, and it is also the cause of divorce itself, suggests data from Harvard sociology professor Alexandra Killewald.

Killewald finds that a man having an unstable job increases the likelihood his marriage will end in divorce because it challenges the “norm of male breadwinning.” According to Killewald, a man’s job instability is a larger factor than a family’s overall income, a woman’s ability to support herself financially after a divorce or the way a couple divides household responsibilities.

“(W)hile wives can balance paid and unpaid work in a variety of ways without threatening marital stability, anything other than full-time employment for husbands is associated with an increased risk of divorce.”

Some post-divorce income decrease is the result of a spouse’s unawareness of a family’s financial situation and responsibilities.

Certified divorce financial analyst Laurie Itkin writes in Forbes that many women only discover the “nasty surprise” of health insurance costs, credit card debt or home equity once they are divorcing or divorced. While some women cede the responsibility of this information to spouses during marriage, Itkin says this practice has financial consequences if the marriage ends.

“(A)fter a divorce, women must take responsibility for all household functions including earning money, saving and investing … and paying bills. By sharing responsibility for all these functions while married, women will have a better shot at maintaining the same financial standard of living after divorce.”

Divorce can also impact credit scores. Although divorce itself doesn’t cause credit dings, creditors — who are not required to honor divorce decrees — do. A judge’s rulings can help a formerly married couple attempt to disentangle its finances by delineating which spouse will pay what.

" Some post-divorce income decrease is the result of a spouse’s unawareness of a family’s financial situation and responsibilities. "

However, as Michelle Black writes for Bankrate, “If a judge orders your ex to pay a joint credit obligation, but he or she fails to do so, your personal credit could suffer.” Black also notes that for women, divorce can be particularly financially difficult because of the gender gap in earnings.

Around 50 percent of divorced women also reported an ex-spouse’s intentional credit damage according to an Experian survey, with 54 percent saying their credit score declined during their marriage.

Because the study's authors find that income for many nonwhite families "may have already been below the threshold (for) investment in higher education prior to divorce," it becomes important for all divorcing spouses to consider the financial situation they're creating for their children.

One initial step is to reconcile the inevitability of child support and alimony. Bari Weinberger, family-law attorney, told The Atlantic that while some parents simply cannot afford the required payments, others won’t accept them:

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“(A)limony and child support don’t always flow from ex-husband to ex-wife. Many men fear they’ll be ridiculed when others find out they’re receiving money from their exes. … Some would rather forgo their monthly stipends than swallow their pride, even if they are the stay-at-home parent bringing in no income.”

Another financial consideration after divorce is the need to retrain in smart money practices, no matter one’s income during marriage.

“It can feel uncomfortable or embarrassing to re-learn core money management skills,” Ladders reports. However, “(s)haring tasks in a marriage, and then having to handle all responsibilities alone, virtually guarantees that both parties will have to learn new skills.”