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Child Support and College Expenses FAQ

When parents get divorced or legally separate, 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 their parents' 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:

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

Typical college expenses may include:

  • Tuition
  • Room and board
  • Fees
  • Transportation and parking
  • Books
  • Medical/dental fees
  • 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. 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. However, a few states do have guidelines regarding child support and college expenses.

Q: If my child enters college, how long might I be required to pay for college expenses?

A: In states where college expenses are considered 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. Other times when payment of college expenses is ordered as part of a divorce decree, it may not be in the nature of child support.

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

Q: When should I apply for college expense support?

A: Ideally, this should be addressed 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. 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.

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. However, since college expenses are something that are not routinely ordered as support in most states, where that is the case, the parties may stipulate for payment to be made to the child or even to 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, 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.

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