Family Law

Paying for College When Parents are Divorced

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Learn more about your financial role in your child’s education.

Am I Legally Obligated to Pay For My Child’s College Tuition?

In most states, parents don’t have an obligation to pay for their child’s college tuition. However, many divorcing parents are able to reach agreements about how much they will each contribute to college expenses. If parents can’t agree, certain states, including Utah and Washington allow a court to order a non-custodial parent to chip in for college. Other states, like Alaska and New Hampshire prevent a judge from ordering a parent to pay for college, unless the parents had a previous agreement.

How Much Will I Have to Contribute to My Child’s College?

Generally, a noncustodial parent bears more responsibility for college costs. But a judge will try to ensure that in complex custody situations, one parent isn’t unfairly saddled with a child’s higher education bill. Specifically, courts will weigh several factors to determine if one or both parents should pay for college and if so, how much. These factors include, but aren’t limited to the following:

  • each parent’s financial situation
  • each parent’s level of post-high school education
  • whether the parents would expect their child to attend college if they were still together
  • the child’s academic achievements and goals
  • the non-custodial parent’s debts and assets
  • the child’s access to financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, and loans, and
  • the child’s ability to earn income while in school.

Depending on the laws of your state, a judge may weigh the above factors and others to determine if a college support award is appropriate. If you don’t want to leave things up to chance, but still want to ensure that your child receives adequate support, you should consider a voluntary college support agreement.

What is a Voluntary College Support Agreement?

Voluntary college support agreements are contracts that spell out each parent’s responsibility for a child’s college costs. Even if you live in a state that won’t order parents to pay college expenses, a court will honor parents’ college support agreements. Agreements need to explain and define the following elements in order to be enforceable:

  • definition of what type of college will be covered—public university, private school, technical school, or trade school
  • definition of covered expenses, such as tuition, housing, food, travel costs, books, and other living expenses
  • how payments will be made
  • the child’s responsibility for certain expenses
  • where the child will reside while attending school, and
  • conditions the child must meet for payments to continue, like good behavior or a certain grade point average.

You should put a lot of thought into any college support agreement before signing it. You can alleviate some of your potential stress by having a local family law attorney draft or review your support agreement.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My ex verbally agreed to help cover the costs of sending our child to college. Can I force my ex to keep this promise?
  • A judge ordered me to pay my child’s college expenses as part of the divorce. I’ve lost my job and can barely cover my own expenses. Will I still have to help pay for college?
  • If I have to pay for my child’s college education, can I pick the my child's school or curriculum?
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