Family Law

Non-Custodial Parents College Expense Obligation

As the need for a college degree increases and college costs climb, more divorced custodial parents are asking courts to require the non-custodial parent to share in college expenses for their children.

One study on children from divorced families shows that only 29 percent of them receive college support from their parents, as opposed to 80 percent of children from nuclear families. Many states have liberalized laws to require non-custodial parents to pay at least a share of college expenses.

College support may be part of ongoing child support or an additional obligation after regular child support ends.

The following states have laws or case law that give courts the authority to order a non-custodial parent to pay for some form of college expenses: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Washington.

Factors Courts Consider

Courts consider many factors in determining what contribution the non-custodial parent should make to college costs, including:

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

Voluntary College Support Agreements

Even in states where courts don't require a non-custodial parent to pay college expenses, the divorcing parties can reach an agreement as to how to pay for college, usually in the process of settling property and custody issues

Agreements as to how to split college costs should be in writing and approved by the court to be enforceable.

Voluntary college support agreements should include:

  • A definition of "college", typically defined as a four-year state university. The definition can include technical or trade schools, but should be broad enough to cover a number of possible options for the child
  • A definition of what expenses are covered.
  • A limit on how long the obligation should continue, such as through a certain level of college or until the child reaches a certain age
  • Whether the non-custodial parent's payments will be made directly to the school, to the child, or to the custodial parent
  • The child's responsibility to contribute toward paying expenses, typically defined as a percentage of the overall cost
  • Conditions that the child must meet for the parent's payments to continue, such as taking a fulltime course load, maintaining a certain grade point average, and allowing the parents access to academic records

The agreement should also address the issue of how any loans or scholarships the child receives play into the mix. You can agree that this financial help lowers both parents' obligation, or you can count it as an offset toward the child's obligation to pay expenses

When the child will be living at home with the custodial parent while attending college, it's important to carefully set out how and to whom room and board expenses will be paid.

Agreements to pay college expenses should be carefully drafted and entered into with the same seriousness you'd 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.

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