Parents have the right to decide how payment of their children’s college expenses will be allocated between them and will usually address the issue when negotiating a divorce or separation agreement, especially when there are older children involved. However, unlike child support, which is a statutory right, and other child support add-ons, such as the cost of extracurricular activities and tutoring, the payment of college expenses is not mandatory.
Still, parents are often shocked to find out that they can be forced to contribute to their children’s college expenses under a divorce decree or court order. But, if you have to go to court to compel the other parent to help pay for your child’s college expenses, understand that the court may also impose an obligation on you. So, you should first have a serious conversation with your child about everyone’s realistic ability to contribute to their college expenses.
Everyone must contribute
It’s important to realize that there are essentially three parties involved in every child support case involving college expenses––each of the parents and the child. All three have a responsibility to contribute.
With regards to the child, who most likely has limited income, the court will require that he or she applies for whatever grants and scholarships that may be available. In addition, depending upon the income of the parents, the court may require the child to also borrow money to help pay for college.
As for the parents, the court will look at their respective incomes and financial resources and determine what percentage of the costs each parent should contribute. Often, a parent will claim that they don’t have enough disposable income to contribute. But, regardless of their income, the court can still require the parent to contribute and, if necessary, to borrow money to meet their obligations.
Caps on college expenses
In most states, there is no statutory ceiling on the amount a parent may be required to pay for their child’s college expense. However, many judges follow a rule that limits a parent’s financial obligation for their child’s college expenses to what it would cost to send the child to a local state university. In other words, if your child is admitted to a very expensive private university, the court may cap your overall obligation to what the cost would be to attend a premier public university in your state.
Get started early
If you need help with college expenses for your child, don’t wait to seek help until college is about to start. Start communicating with the other parent about colleges you may be able to afford in the fall of your child’s senior year in high school.
This way, you will at least initiate a dialog. Then, even if that dialog gets you nowhere, you can always point back to emails and other communications to show the court that you attempted to include the other parent in the discussion.
If your child will be attending college in the fall, you should file a petition with the court by the previous winter or the early spring at the latest. This is typically the time when decisions about which college or university a child will be attending are made and when financial loan applications should be filed.
Consult with an experienced family law attorney
Make sure that you approach the issue of child support for college expenses in the correct manner so that your child can get the financial assistance they deserve. If you are having a problem getting the other parent to help pay for your child’s college expenses, consult with an experienced family law attorney who can assist you in getting the support you need.