Child Support and College Expenses FAQ

When parents get divorced or legally separated, the noncustodial parent must supply the financial needs of the child by paying child support. This usually means financial support that covers expenses for minor children.

Parents typically stop making child support payments when a child turns 18 and the child graduates high school. Or if the child is still in high school full-time and can't support themselves, it might continue until they are 19. But what about children who are legally adults and in college? Does the child support obligation continue for college costs? Are noncustodial parents obligated to help pay for college tuition and other related costs?

Below you'll find answers to the following frequently asked questions about college expenses and child support.

  • Are parents who are divorced, or living separately, legally obligated to pay for their child's college education and related expenses?
  • What factors does a court look at when deciding child support and college expenses?
  • Divorce itself is complicated enough. Is there an easy formula to determine how much support I might have to pay?
  • If my child enters college, how long might I be required to pay for college expenses?
  • What about financial aid? How does this factor into the equation?
  • 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?
  • 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)?
  • When should I apply for college expense support?
  • Will the support go to me, my ex-spouse, or my child?
  • Get Legal Help with Your Questions About Child Support and College Expenses

Are Parents Who Are Divorced, or Living Separately, Legally Obligated To Pay For Their Child's College Education and Related Expenses?

Most educational expense issues are addressed during the divorce process itself, along with other child support issues. But, when there is no agreement, and no court order, the obligation of divorced parents to pay for their child's college expenses will depend on the state child support laws.

Some states (including Arizona) require divorced parents to pay for college-related expenses (based on the reasoning that a child's education should not suffer because of their parents' divorce), while other states view these as conditional expenses and do not require payments for college expenses or reimbursement. For example, Michigan child support laws do not require parents to continue child support payments while their child is in college.

Learn more about the child support guidelines in your state.

What Factors Does a Court Look at When Deciding Child Support and College Expenses?

Courts look at a variety of factors in determining whether to grant college expense support to an ex-spouse, such as:

  • The financial resources of both parents (including parent's income, savings, and investments)
  • The standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not ended
  • The financial resources of the child (including financial aid and scholarships)
  • The child's academic performance (whether the child was going to go to college)

Typical college expenses may include:

  • Tuition
  • Room and board
  • Fees
  • Transportation and parking
  • Books
  • Health care/health insurance/medical expenses/dental fees
  • General living expenses

Divorce Itself Is Complicated Enough. Is There an Easy Formula To Determine How Much Support I Might Have To Pay?

There isn't an exact child support formula, but the amount is usually based on your ability to pay, just like most child support calculations. This means the award amount is left to the court's discretion, and the court will consider the factors listed above. But, a few states have guidelines on child support and college expenses, just as they do for calculating child support.

If My Child Enters College, How Long Might I Be Required To Pay for College Expenses?

In states where college expenses are a form of child support under the law, or if your decree specifically treats them as child support, they are subject to enforcement, modification, and termination. This means that if college costs are in a current support order, the court treats it like any other child support. Other times when payment of college expenses is part of a divorce decree, it may not be like child support.

Typically, when a child attends college, they are not "emancipated" or self-supporting. Your obligation to pay for educational expenses ends when the child is emancipated or by the time your child earns a degree. Minor emancipation laws vary by state.

What About Financial Aid? How Does This Factor Into the Equation?

In deciding the amount of child support, the courts will consider several factors. The availability of financial aid is one of those factors. Often, the custodial parent has to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) if the child is eligible for financial aid or any other scholarships and loans. The court will often require the child to accept those forms of financial aid to help reduce the actual cost of attending college.

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?

Often the question arises about 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.

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)?

Generally, there are no requirements to pay for grad school. However, the parent may be able to agree to contribute toward graduate education in the divorce agreement.

When Should I Apply for College Expense Support?

Ideally, you should address this before finalizing the divorce. Even where it is not required by state law, if it is something one of the parents wants, they may be able to negotiate it into a settlement agreement. You can discuss this before the court issues the child support order. Particularly where both parents are college graduates with the means to pay for college and a desire to provide for the children's education, it is a reasonable issue for divorcing parents to address in the decree.

Will the Support Go to Me, My Ex-Spouse, or My Child?

This is not alimony or spousal support. Support will go to the other parent. A child or student still comes home on breaks and in the summer. Since there is still some cost to maintaining the house for the child to come home, the parent of the primary home will likely collect. But because college expenses are not routinely ordered as support in most states, the parties may stipulate payment to the child or the college itself.

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, can best decide their child's educational needs and interests, considering their child's personality and preferences. But when you can't agree on child support and college expenses, it may be necessary to get professional legal help. You may need legal advice on your child support case. Or you need help with other family court issues like child custody and parenting time. Get started today by contacting a family law attorney licensed in your state.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Some states allow you to set up child support with forms and court processes
  • You may need legal help to set up or modify child support arrangements
  • If there is conflict, an attorney can advise if the other parent’s actions are legal 

Get tailored advice about paying or receiving child support. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child support arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

Start Planning