Do Divorced Parents Have to Pay for their Children’s College Expenses?

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Red piggy bank with a graduation cap on top of a calculator and a stack of moneyPoliticians 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.”

How to Figure Out if You May Have to Pay for Your Kids’ College Expenses

The first, and probably most important, factor in determining whether you may be obligated to pay for your kids’ college expenses is where you live.

In some states, parents are not required to contribute to their children’s college educational expenses at all. For example, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that a divorced mother did not have to contribute toward her 19 year old child’s college education expenses. The court found that the Alabama child support statute did not require such payments. The court also reasoned that, if the legislature didn’t require a college expense contribution, the court wouldn’t do so either.

Other states do have laws requiring divorced parents to pay at least some part of their children’s college expenses. In Illinois, for example, divorced parents are required to contribute toward the payment of their children’s college education expenses. Their contribution is limited, however to the cost of in-state tuition at the University of Illinois, Champaign, Urbana.

Because divorce laws are always changing, it’s hard to keep track of which states require divorced parents to contribute to their kids’ college expenses and which don’t. It does seem, however, that the number of states which impose this obligation on divorced parents is shrinking. (To know whether your state may require you to contribute to your children’s college expenses, check with a lawyer in your area.)

Finally, even if your state does not require you to contribute to your children’s college expenses, you still may be required to contribute to their support (i.e. food, shelter, etc.) if they are in college. While “support” is not necessarily the same as “college tuition,” it’s still something. Usually that kind of obligation will end after your kids reach a certain age, typically 21 – 23.

What Does Your Judgment Say?

Close up of a document saying "Sign here"The second biggest factor in determining whether you will have to contribute toward your children’s college educational expenses is the language of your divorce judgment.

If, as part of your divorce, you agreed to pay all, or some portion, of your children’s college expenses, then you’re probably going to have to do exactly that.  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.

On the other hand, if your divorce judgment said nothing about paying for college expenses, then the law of your state will kick in. Whether or not you will have to pay for your kid’s college will depend upon the law in the state where you live.

What if You Can’t Afford to Contribute to Your Kids’ College Expenses?

While most parents would love to help their kids get an education, many can’t afford it.  College can be crazy-expensive! What’s more, college expenses often go up every year … usually by a lot!

If you simply can’t afford to contribute to your kid’s college expenses, what do you do?

Again, the answer is: it depends.

If your state requires you to contribute towards your kids’ college expenses, then you’re probably going to have to find a way to do that.  (Sorry!) If you agreed in your divorce judgment that you would pay some portion of your kids’ college expenses, you’re also probably going to have to honor that agreement.

The good news is, there are plenty of ways to pay for your kids’ college expenses.  For example, you can help your kids apply for grants and scholarships. That will lower the cost of their tuition.  Or, you may be able to make your kids’ college more affordable if you can convince them to start at a local community college. Not only will their tuition be much lower, but they can also live at home while they go to school. That will reduce their living expenses, too.

If all else fails, you can take out a Parent Plus Loan or other loan to help pay for your kids’ expenses. Or, you may be able to sign as the guarantor of your kids’ student loans.

Of course, if you are really broke, and you just can’t afford to contribute anything toward your children’s college expenses, you can always petition the court to relieve you of that requirement. Whether or not the judge grants your petition will depend on the law in your state, the circumstances in your case, and, of course, your judge.

How Much Will You Have to Pay?

If you are required to contribute towards your kids college expenses, how much will you have to pay? Again, the answer is: it depends! (Are you sensing a theme here?)

If your state sets a limit on your contribution, then the amount you will have to contribute may be clear. If your state does not have a contribution limitation, the amount you will have to pay will typically depend upon a number of factors. Again, you need to check with a lawyer in your state to determine what your state law requires.

Usually, the court will consider the following kinds of factors in determining the extent of your college expense contribution:

  1. Your financial resources. That includes your income and expenses as well as your assets and debts;
  2. Your spouse’s financial resources. (Again, that will include his/her income, expenses, assets and debts);
  3. Your child’s financial resources;
  4. The standard of living your child would have enjoyed had your marriage not dissolved; and
  5. Your child’s academic performance.

Finally the courts may also consider your child’s relationship with you as well. If your kids haven’t seen or spoken to you in years they may find that they can’t now expect you to bankroll their college costs! (NOTE: Not all states will factor your relationship into the college expense equation. Make sure you talk to an attorney in your area to check on this.)

College Expense Issues Can Be ComplicatedGreen S with a Green Pencil going down the middle, forming a dollar sign

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. Whether, and how much, you may have to contribute depends on a lot of different factors.

If your kids are about to go to college, and they’re looking to you to pay their expenses, the best thing you can do is to consult with an experienced family law attorney in your state. That’s really the only way to get an answer to this question that’s much better than, “it depends.”


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  • What happens in Al. When divorce papers state that both parents would share college expenses, and they can’t afford it but child says he will force them to pay for his school since its in the divorce papers.

  • I was not included in my daughters pick for college and now that she is 18 and out of school and i took my x back to stop her support she is taking me to court for school i wanted her to go to a jr college but she picked niu and i found out thought face book how far is that ,i want the best for her ,but i can not afford that school ,and had no say so ,what can i do

    • Whether divorced parents have to pay for their children’s college expenses varies from state to state. Right now, in Illinois, divorced parents may be obligated to pay for their children’s college education expenses up to the cost of tuition, room and board at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. While judges are supposed to take into consideration each parent’s financial circumstances when determining college support, sometimes what the judge thinks you can and should contribute is different than what you think you can and should contribute.

      I can’t give you legal advice online. But, I urge you to find a good divorce lawyer in your area so that you can see what your options are. I also urge you to talk to your daughter and (if you can) to your ex. If you can’t work anything out with them directly, a mediator may be able to help you resolve your issues. Even if you are already in the court system, a mediator may be able to help you.

      The bottom line is that right now, it doesn’t sound like you’re in the best position. You need to understand the law, find out your options, and negotiate from there.

      I wish you the best.


  • I don’t make a lot of money. Between my monthly expenses (which are not exorbitant by any means), I barely have enough for spending money. I make $3000 gross (before taxes)
    If I can’t afford college for my daughter, and my ex doesn’t want the child to take out school loans, what are my options?

    • I meant 3000 an month. And now, after looking, at the end of Oct, I’ve made $28,000 gross in the last 10 months. How the hell can my ex make me pay money toward tuition that I don’t have? If I take on another bill, I will be in the red!

    • You’re definitely in a tough spot. First, let me clear up a few things.

      First of all, your ex can’t MAKE you do anything. The judge can. But, not your ex.

      Do you have to pay for your kid’s college? Like the article says, that depends on the divorce law in your state, and the terms of your Divorce Judgment and Settlement Agreement. If the law in your state requires parents to pay (or at least contribute) toward their kid’s college expenses, you may have to contribute. If it doesn’t, but you agreed in your divorce papers to help pay for your kid’s college, then you may have to contribute. But there’s a big difference between contributing, and paying it all.

      I would be honest with both your ex and your daughter about your financial situation. They may not like your financial reality, but they are going to have to deal with it, just as you are. Will that mean that your daughter will be upset with you for not supporting her college dreams? Maybe. Will your ex blame you if your daughter doesn’t go to college or goes to a lesser school? Probably. But that’s the reality you’re going to have to deal with unless you can find a way to make more money and help pay for your daughter’s school.

      I can understand completely that your ex doesn’t want to saddle your daughter with school loans. But the money for college has to come from somewhere. If your ex has the resources to pay for your daughter’s college herself, she can do that. But if none of you, including your daughter, has any money to pay college expenses, then you’ve all got a problem. You can solve that problem in a lot of different ways.

      Your daughter can get a job and work her way through school. She can go to a community college for a few years while she’s working and saving money. She can apply for scholarships. She can take loans even though your ex doesn’t want her to do that. Or, you or your ex can take parent loans and pay off your daughter’s college a little at a time. You can get a second job. Your ex can get a second job.

      In short, there are a lot of ways to solve this problem. I can’t say which one will work for you. What I can tell you is that, if you don’t figure this out for yourself, and you and your ex hire lawyers and fight about this in court, then all the money you could have spent helping your daughter through school will go to the lawyers. (Sorry!) So, even if you can’t afford much, helping your daughter out even a little bit will be a better option than throwing your money into the court system.

      Good luck!


  • Hi Karen,

    I am divorced in Illinois and my divorce papers state that my ex and I will share the college expenses. My son just got his bachelor’s degree (age 24) and is telling me that my ex and I are now required to pay off his student loans. I was under the impression that once my child gets a bachelor’s degree, I am not required to pay their student debt. Am I correct ?

    • Wow, what a kid!

      I’d love to answer your question, but I’m not allowed to give legal advice online. I’d call your divorce attorney and ask the question of him/her.


  • Hi, I am from the state of iowa and divorce decree states we must split college cost 3 ways between our daughter and us. I have money put away for college and I have a college savings fund for my daughter which covers most of her third. My ex earns around 45000 a year, does not have money saved for college and has terrible credit. What are my options if she can’t pay her third? Have you heard of cases where the court said they did not have to pay? Thanks

    • Okay, so I can’t give you legal advice. But I can tell you that if your divorce decree (which is a court order) says your ex has to do something, then she doesn’t do it, you can take her back to court and ask the judge to enforce his/her court order.

      Will the judge do it? Will she enforce her order? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that for sure. (Sorry!) Like so many things in divorce, the answer is: it depends!

      If your wife can’t pay her 1/3 for your daughter’s college, she can take out a loan. But, if she can’t get a loan because her credit is bad, where is the money going to come from? You can’t get blood from a turnip!

      It may be possible for you to cover your ex’s 1/3 and then go after her in court to pay it. That way you solve the immediate problem of your daughter being able to go to school. (Obviously, if you don’t pay the tuition, she can’t attend classes.) At the same time, you will be doing your best to make your ex carry her own weight, too. But there are no guarantees about how successful you will be. (Sorry!)

      I suggest you talk to a lawyer in your area and see what s/he advises. Remember, it will cost YOU money in attorney’s fees to try to enforce your divorce decree. (Yes. I know. This doesn’t make sense.)

      Meanwhile, remember what’s important: your daughter’s education. If you can, figure out a Plan B (and maybe even a Plan C!) for how you can scrape together the money to pay for it. Then you can worry about your ex after the fact. (Sorry! I know that’s not what you want to hear!)


  • Hi Karen,
    I was divorced in Illinois and since moved to Arizona with my son who is now in college. Per our divorce judgement and settlement agreement we would have to go back to court after my son was 18 and college bound to determine who pays what, if anything at all. Now that I am in AZ. do we follow AZ. Law or Illinois Law? Do I have to go back to IL to file or here in AZ? Do I need a lawyer from both states? Also, as part of the divorce, I was not supposed to move out of state, my bad, but the best for my son and I. Will that play a role in my son NOT being able to get the help needed for college? TY

    • I really wish I could help you here, but what you’re asking are legal questions. The answers depend on a lot of things, including the wording of your divorce judgment – which I haven’t seen. I also can’t answer legal questions like this online.

      The only thing I CAN tell you is that if you and your ex can work something out, you don’t have to go back to court anywhere. As a second approach, I’d try mediating this issue with your ex. Maybe you can work things out that way. If not, then, yes, you’re going to have to go to court. And, given the issues you have, you will definitely need a lawyer to help you.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help here.


  • Hi, great article. I live in Washington State. Per court order My x and I are splitting my daughters college. We are to pay directly to the college. I made my 50 percent but my x has paid nothing. I think she will just have my daughter pay it later on after graduating. How can the court force her to pay it. Can they garnish her wages? Thanks mark

    • You can get a judge to enforce the court order, but you need to talk to an attorney in your area about how you can do that in your state. (TIP: Consult with an attorney sooner rather than later. You need to understand what’s going on!)



  • Is there any case law in Illinois that you know that addresses the issue of in-kind contributions to college tuition, if say
    a parent is offering tuition-free education at her or his university (say higher ranked thank the child’s preferred school)
    and the child still insists on an expensive school of her or his choice?

  • Both my ex and I live in GA. The divorce agreement states that we are both to pay half of our (2) sons’ college expenses. Older son has finished college – ex paid his half by taking out parent plus loans. Younger son just started college. After getting laid off 18 months ago, my ex decided to just live off his severance payment and not work for 8 months. For the last 8 months, he’s been a substitute teacher – he’s an accountant with an MBA – and live off his retirement from the job he was laid off from. (smh) He’s now decided to work as a teacher full time – making 50% of what he made when he was working as an accountant. Summary – he’s run out of severance and retirement and never had savings. He spends more than he makes. Can he now claim hardship because he makes less money (by choice), has used up any savings/retirement and can’t pay his bills? Would a court require him to pay for younger son’s college?

  • Married parents can’t be forced to buy a college education. Why should divorced parents have to? Does the child want to go to college? Who checks that the child is intellectually able to benefit from and succeed in college?

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