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  

Next: Voluntary College Support Agreements

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