When parents get divorced, or have children outside of marriage, the noncustodial parent is obligated to help with the financial needs of the child by paying child support. But what about children who are legally adults and in college? Are noncustodial parents obligated to help pay for tuition and other related costs?
Below you'll find answers to the most frequently asked questions pertaining to college expenses and child support.
Q: Are parents who are divorced, or living separately, legally obligated to pay for their child's college education and related expenses?
A: As a general matter, most educational expense issues are addressed during the divorce process itself, along with other child support issues. However, when there is no agreement in place, the obligation of divorced parents to pay for their child's college expenses will depend on the state.
Some states require divorced parents to pay for college related expenses (based on the reasoning that a child's education should not suffer because of a divorce), while other states view these as conditional expenses and do not require college expense payments and/or reimbursement.
Learn more about the child support guidelines in your state.
Q: What factors does a court look at when deciding child support and college expenses?
A: Courts look at a variety of factors in determining whether to grant college expense support to an ex-spouse, such as:
Typical college expenses may include: tuition, room and board, dues/fees, transportation/travel, books, medical/dental fees, and general living expenses.
Q: Divorce itself is complicated enough. Is there an easy formula to determine how much support I might have to pay?
A: There isn't an exact formula, but the amount is usually based on your ability to pay. Many states have established firm guidelines regarding child support and college expenses. This means the amount of the award is generally left to the discretion of the court, and the court will consider the factors listed above.
Q: If my child enters college, how long might I be required to pay for college expenses?
A: Because college expenses are considered a form of child support under the law, they are subject to enforcement, modification, and termination. Typically, when a child is attending college, they are not "emancipated" -- or self-supporting. Your obligation to pay for educational expenses officially ends when the child is emancipated, or by the time your child earns a degree.
However, the amount you're required to pay when a child is attending college may likely be reduced if the child is living at school, for example. This is because the cost of college includes room and board and the parent of primary residence isn't necessarily incurring those expenses. So, the parent of alternate residence will still likely have to pay, but that amount is likely to get reduced.
Minor emancipation laws vary by state.
Q: What about financial aid -- how does this factor into the equation?
A: The courts, in deciding the amount of child support, will consider several factors, and the availability of financial aid is one of those factors. Often, the custodial parent has to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application of Federal Student Aid) if the child is eligible for financial aid, or any other scholarships and loans. Many times the court will require the child to accept those forms of financial aid to help reduce the actual cost of attending college.
Q: My child wants to go to a private college, but there's a great public college just down the road. Will I be responsible for private tuition, when public tuition is a cheaper option?
A: Often the question arises regarding the cost of private vs. public tuition. There are several factors a court must consider before allowing a child to receive aid for higher tuition costs, when a less expensive and comparable public college is available.
Q: What about secondary education after college? Will I be required to pay for my child's professional studies (e.g. graduate, business or law school)?
A: Again, it depends on a variety of factors, such as grades, expectations of you and your ex, if you've always imagined your kids attending graduate school, etc.
Q: When should I apply for college expense support?
A: Ideally -- you would make the application after your child has applied to college but before they've decided where they'd like to go.
Q: Will the support go to me, my ex-spouse, or my child?
A: Support will go to the spouse, not the child. A child or student still comes home on breaks and in the summer. Since there is still some cost to maintaining the residence for the child to come home, the parent of primary residence will likely collect.
Get Legal Help with Your Questions About Child Support and College Expenses
As with most issues in family law, a child's parents, rather than the courts, are best able to decide their child's educational needs and interests, considering their child's personality and preference. However, when an agreement cannot be reached with regard to child support and college expenses, it may be necessary to get professional legal help. Get started today by contacting a family law attorney licensed in your state.