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Can Court Order Divorced Parent to Pay Child’s College Tuition?

Feb 11, 2015 | Written by: Diana N. Fredericks, Esq. |

Clients often inquire as to whether their spouse (or former spouse) can be court-ordered to pay for their child’s college education. While the answer is typically “yes”, it is not without exceptions, caveats and caution.  Perhaps when you have asked this question, your attorney has responded “it depends”, which can often be frustrating for clients but is completely appropriate, as these issues are extremely fact-sensitive and no two cases are alike.

Recently, Judge Jones published an opinion in which he answered the question, “where there is a damaged relationship between the parent and child, can the Court require counseling as a condition of that child receiving financial assistance from that parent?”  The Court answered yes, so long as there is no compelling reason to keep the parent and student physically apart.

Here is an interesting excerpt from the decision… “When an adult child takes this type of dismissive attitude towards the parent/child relationship and instead continues to harbor endless resentment towards the parent with no good faith effort at rehabilitation or reconciliation, then the idea of the child simultaneously demanding college contribution from the parent may be viewed by a court of equity as fundamentally unfair and inequitable to the parent, even after considering all of the other applicable criteria under Newburgh. Further, a student's rejection of the opportunity to attempt reunification with a parent may be factually so compelling as to equitably overshadow and eclipse the other Newburgh factors, and tilt the scales of justice in favor of suspending or completely terminating the parent's obligation to financially contribute towards the child's college education.”

In that same opinion, the Court explored whether it may order a child to attend a substantially less expensive college, even if it is not the child’s preference to do so.   The Court indicated “yes”, it can do so, as a parent should not be forced into bankruptcy to fund a child’s college expenses. 

“In intact families, where mothers and fathers address such issues outside of divorce court, the comparative expenses and affordability of tuition at different colleges is usually a significant factor for consideration by financially responsible parents and students alike. The issue of cost is no less important in families of divorce, particularly in cases where neither parent can afford a blank checkbook approach to education.”

Lastly, the Court also addressed the issue of what happens when siblings are relatively close in age and are also likely to attend college in the near future.  In such a circumstance, there may be a need for implementation of a reasonable financial plan that fairly allocates present and future contemplated funding resources among all of the parties' children, rather than exhausting such resources primarily or exclusively on the oldest child who happens to be first in line for college.

This decision is instructive and an extremely worthwhile read if you have children who are in college or about to enter college.  This decision was made after the parties’ divorce, post-judgment, and addresses how these principles can be applied, even if not contemplated in your divorce agreement. 

For assistance with post-judgment issues, such as college, please contact Diana N. Fredericks, Esq., to schedule your consultation.