Olympic champion Michael Phelps was raised by his divorced single mom Debbie; fellow gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte's parents are divorced, as are the parents of gymnast Gabby Douglas. The accomplishments of these athletes at the Rio Summer Olympics are good evidence that divorce doesn't need to deter a child's Olympic dreams.
But as a divorced co-parent, how do you pay for them?
If you've got a budding athlete determined to go for the gold, one of the first places to look for guidance on who foots the bill for coaches, lessons, equipment, and other sports-related expenses for your child, is your divorce settlement's child support arrangements.
In most states, child support guidelines allow for a portion of the regular award to cover things like basic lessons and costs related to extracurricular sports at school. This comes out of a pool of money that may be earmarked as "Entertainment," as it is here in New Jersey. The allotment of money calculated into the award is generally expected to not only cover extracurricular sports, but also other normal entertainment activities such as movie rentals or concert tickets. If your child is inspired by Simone Manuel to start taking swimming lessons, then money from this part of the child support award can go to help cover the costs, if you choose to use it for such.
However, if your child is already swimming laps around other kids and showing signs of being the next Katie Ledecky, the waters become a bit murkier for what role child support plays in funding the extra coaching and tournament expenses an elite athlete requires. For example, swimmer Sean Grieshop is an Olympic hopeful whose family spends $600 a month in training fees, $400 to $500 on each racing swimsuit, $1,000 every time they travel out of town for a swim meet, and additional expenses for regular trips to the sports massage therapist, nutritionist and personal trainer. Ordinary or basic child support is not necessarily earmarked to cover these expenses.
However, child support guidelines in various states do typically carry language about support for "gifted or special needs" children. The case could be made that a child "gifted" in a certain sport is deserving of the support required to express this gift to the fullest. In New Jersey, judges are committed to always look at the "best interest of the child" in making any decision. If it is viewed that pursuing the sport is in the best interest of the child, the judge may be more likely to invoke this gifted clause to some extent, or decide on other arrangements, such as creating a parenting time plan around the child's sports schedule.
Does this mean a judge can order a parent to take out a second mortgage to keep the child in the running for the next Olympics? No. The courts generally take into account three key factors when determining how costs are shared:
1. Each parent's income.
2. Any settlement agreements and court orders addressing parental decision-making and child support obligations. For example, if parents divorce when their child is already participating in the sport, the divorce may spell out exact terms of how parents will share the sports-related costs.
3. The child's demonstrated talent and commitment to the sport in question.
In general, the parent who is more enthusiastic about the child's involvement in sports may need to be willing to take on more of the burden of paying for extras above and beyond normal participation -- or be willing to concede on other issues. Depending on their situation, some parents may decide to forgo going back to court all together and look for other sources of money, including scholarships or sponsorships to help defray costs.
Whatever financial decisions you come to with your former spouse, take inspiration from the many divorced parents who have rooted on their kids' Olympic aspirations. As Debbie Phelps once said, "Every parent who is sitting in the stands wants their child to do their best." And this includes divorced co-parents, too!