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.”
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?
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:
- Your financial resources. That includes your income and expenses as well as your assets and debts;
- Your spouse’s financial resources. (Again, that will include his/her income, expenses, assets and debts);
- Your child’s financial resources;
- The standard of living your child would have enjoyed had your marriage not dissolved; and
- 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.)
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.”