Family Law

Paying for College When Parents are Divorced

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The need for a college degree is increasing. College costs are climbing. It's easy to see why more divorced custodial parents ask courts to require the noncustodial parent to help pay their children's college expenses.

Can a court require divorced parents to help pay for their child's college education? It depends on which state you live in.

Child Support for College Not Required

States are divided on whether courts can order child support after a child reaches age 18 or 19 to cover college costs. Some states don't allow courts to order such support.

For example, a California law ends a parent's legal duty to pay child support when an 18-year-old child completes high school or turns 19. California courts can't require even very wealthy parents to pay their children's college expenses once their kids reach adult age and are able to support themselves.

A New Hampshire law is even more specific. It says child support orders can't require a parent to pay an adult child's college expenses.

Courts May Order College Payment

On the other hand, a third of the states have laws or case law giving courts the power to order divorced parents to pay college expenses. Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington all passed laws to allow child support orders to cover at least some higher education.

Iowa's law allows a court to order child support for full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22. Other states allow child support to cover higher education until the child turns 21.

Hawaii's law is probably the most liberal. It allows support for an adult child as long as the child is a full-time student in a university, college or vocational school. There's no cutoff based on age or time spent in school.

In other states, including Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, no law specifically addresses child support for college. Yet, courts in those states can order a divorced parent to pay for his or her child's college education as part of the court's general authority to make child support awards.

Court Awarded College Support

In those states that allow child support awards for college costs, courts look at a number of factors to determine whether non-custodial parents should have to contribute to their child's college funds. These factors include:

  • Whether the parents would have contributed toward the college costs if they still lived together
  • The level of post-high school education of both parents
  • Whether the parents would have expected the child to go to college if they still lived together
  • The financial resources of the child and parents
  • The child's particular interests, academic achievements and goals
  • The child's ability to earn income while in school
  • The availability of financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants and loans
  • The relationship between the child and the non-custodial parent, including the child's responsiveness to advice and guidance

Voluntary College Support Agreements

Whether a state allows child support for college costs, courts in all states will generally enforce an agreement to provide that support. An arrangement to fund your child's college education can be included in your divorce decree or a separate contract as part of settling your property and custody issues.

Agreements to share college costs should be in writing and approved by the divorce court to be enforceable. Voluntary college support agreements should include:

  • A definition of college. This may include a four-year state university, private college, or technical or trade schools. The definition should be broad enough to cover a number of possible options for the child
  • A definition of what expenses are covered. This may include tuition, room, board, travel expenses, books and other living expenses
  • A limit on how long the obligation continues. This could mean a four-year obligation, until the child reaches a certain age, or through a certain level of college
  • How the payments are made. Determine if the non-custodial parent's payments are made directly to the school, to the child, or to the custodial parent
  • The child's responsibility to share expenses. The child's contribution is typically defined as a percentage of the overall cost
  • Conditions the child must meet for the parent's payments to continue. This may require the child to take a full-time course load, maintain a certain grade point average, and allow the parents access to academic records
  • The impact of financial aid. You could agree that loans, grants or scholarships lower the obligation of both parents or it could offset the child's obligation to pay expenses
  • The child's residence at home while attending college. Carefully set out how room and board expenses are shared if the child lives with a parent while attending college

Agreements to pay college expenses should be carefully drafted and entered into with the same seriousness you devote to signing any contract. It's always a good idea to consult with a family law attorney in your area before negotiating such an important legal document.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My ex-spouse verbally promised to send our child to college. Can a court force my ex to keep this promise?
  • What if I lose my job, will I still have to help pay my child college expenses?
  • If I have to help pay for my child's college education, don't I have a right to pick the school or choose the curriculum for my child?
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