Politicians and lawyers both have a reputation for never giving a straight answer to a simple question. So, when asked, “Do divorced parents have to pay for their children’s college expenses?” like any good lawyer, the answer I usually give is, “it depends.”
The first, and probably most important, factor the answer depends upon is where you live. In some states, non-custodial parents are not required to contribute to their children’s college educational expenses at all. Last week, for example, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a non-custodial mother did not have to contribute toward the payment of her 19 year old child’s college education expenses because the Alabama child support statute did not give the court the authority to order a parent to make such payments. In making this ruling, the court said that imposing the obligation to contribute to college expenses was something for the Alabama legislature, not the courts, to require.
Other states, including Illinois, have case law or statutes that specifically give courts the power to order divorced parents to contribute to the payment of their children’s college expenses. However, the number of states which will impose an obligation on divorced parents to pay some portion of their children’s college expenses is shrinking. According to an article on Lawyers.com1, the states which have laws allowing child support payments to cover college expenses are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Even if a state does not have laws requiring a non-custodial parent to contribute to the payment of his or her children’s college expenses, that parent may still sometimes be required to contribute to their college child’s support (i.e. food, shelter, etc.) even after the child reaches the age of 18. While “support” is not necessarily the same as “college tuition,” the bottom line is that a divorced parent may still be ordered to pay something to their adult children while they are in college…at least until they reach a certain age, typically 21 or 22.
The second biggest factor in determining whether you will have to contribute toward your children’s college educational expenses is the language contained in your divorce judgment. If, as part of your divorce judgment or marital settlement agreement, you agreed to pay all, or some portion, of your children’s college expenses, then, even if you live in a state that would not otherwise have required you to pay for your kids’ college costs, you will have to pay whatever you agreed to pay. If your divorce judgment said nothing about paying for college expenses, then, whether or not you will have to pay such expenses will be determined by state law.
The final factor in determining whether you will be required to contribute to your children’s college educational expenses after you are divorced is not one single “factor,” but rather a list of factors that a court will look at when deciding your case. For example, in Illinois, the court considers the following factors when determining whether a parent will have to contribute toward the payment of their child’s college expenses:
- The financial resources of both parents
- The standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not been dissolved
- The financial resources of the child; and
- The child’s academic performance.
Courts in many states also consider the child’s relationship with the non-custodial parent as well. Children who haven’t seen or spoken to their non-custodial parent in years may find they have a much more difficult time in getting the court to order that parent to pay for their college tuition than children who have maintained a good relationship with their parents.
The question of whether you, as a divorced parent, will have to pay for your child’s college educational expenses is not a simple one. The answer really does depend on a lot of different factors. If this is a question that you are facing, your best course of action is to consult with an experienced family law attorney in your state in order to get an answer that’s much better than, “it depends.”
To read more about the recent Alabama Supreme Court case, go to: http://www.timesdaily.com/news/local/article_f7b50aee-2d74-11e3-8280-10604b9f6eda.html