Seemingly impervious to economic conditions, be they poor or excellent, college costs and tuition continue to rise to astronomical levels. While more people than ever in recent history are suffering from job losses or reductions in employment, if you’re living in a divorce and child custody situation in the following states…

Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Washington

…you may be surprised to discover that your legal responsibility to pay child support for your “children” extends to college tuition and expenses (in part or in whole).   Further, those costs will be in addition to continued child support for as long as they may be in college in some of those states.  A loss or reduction in your earnings situation oftentimes does not eliminate the legal responsibility to pay for your child’s college tuition.  This is too often a similar story with child support modifications due to unemployment.

Unfortunately, the above states remain behind the times when it comes to protections afforded citizens by the United States Constitution.  This is what drove many states to strike such requirements for divorced parents, particularly non-custodial parents.  Essentially, such requirements violate the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regarding equal protection under the law.  States which removed such provisions recognized that it’s illegal to require divorced parents to pay  for children’s college tuition and expenses as a child support issue where no such child support requirements exist for children of intact marriages.

Those states that do have such laws remaining on the books have justified the constitutionality of their child support laws due to their view that children of divorce are disadvantaged.  Since they don’t have the same financial advantages of children from intact families, they are considered a “special class.”  As such the lawful requirement that non-custodial parents pay college tuition and costs are a “legitimate governmental purpose.”   That purpose specifically is the education of its youth.

The level of contributions required of non-custodial parents to support college funding varies widely from state to state.  Some have no limitations and can compel one to pay for the most expensive educational institutions and associated reasonable expenses.  Others have restrictions such as relegating contributions only for full-time enrollment at an in-state, public college along with reasonable expenses.  (Consult your attorney to find out the details for your state.)

Keep in mind that all states will honor most child support agreements struck between parents that have provisions for paying for higher education.  While we are great advocates of children getting higher education, we still often suggest that you not enter into any such agreements.  The reason is not because we don’t value higher education.  It’s simply because financial circumstances change and not very often for the better after a divorce.  When an economy tanks to the degree that ours has in recent years, it’s not easy to get out of your previously agreed upon obligation to pay for these expenses.  If these circumstances don’t frighten you, consider limiting your generosity to public, in-state institutions, and what extraneous expenses shall be excluded from the contributions.

Keep in mind that additional college expenses may be construed to include the following:

  • Tuition
  • Room & Board
  • Cellphone expenses
  • New computer and related costs
  • Food and clothing allowances
  • Available funds for “emergencies”
  • Transportation costs, including public transportation or a car along with insurance, gas, maintenance, etc.

For these reasons alone you should consult with someone who has the forethought to consider just how far-reaching the impact can be for your future financial situation.  Remember that family court operates almost exclusively on the belief that the children have all the rights and no one else matters.  That means you and your financial well-being, too.  If you remain married, your children are responsible for themselves once they turn age 18 and any additional assistance you provide is what you are voluntarily willing to do.  When you divorce, in some states, that decision is out of your hands and becomes the state’s choice regardless of what you want to do or what you can afford to do.  It doesn’t matter if your child has earned such generosity or even has a relationship with you.  When the state tells you that you’re paying, you’re going to pay one way or the other.

While it’s true that far fewer children from divorce situations receive assistance from their parents for higher education than do those from intact families, the reasons are usually tied to economic ability.  Expenses are increased when split parents have to provide home, food, and all the other essentials where previously it all took place in one household.  Parents’ credit usually suffers in the aftermath of divorce which impedes their ability to obtain loans and other financial assistance.

Unfortunately, as most people already realize, an inability to pay doesn’t mean a thing to Family Court.  Don’t underestimate the consequences for failing to consider your financial future whether your are in a state with requirements for higher education contributions from parents or you’re considering entering into an agreement with your ex-spouse.