After divorce, who pays for college?

Most parents worry about their ability to cover higher education costs for their children. That issue becomes more complex when parents get divorced. For them, the question is not just how, but who.

In Washington, child support is usually only paid until a child turns 18 or graduates from high school (whichever occurs later). The support obligation can be extended, however, to cover education costs for college, vocational training, trade school, and sometimes even graduate school. The term for this extended support obligation is post-secondary support.

What does post-secondary support cover?

Washington courts have determined that post-secondary support can include many different costs incurred when a child receives additional schooling after graduating from high school. This can include tuition, room and board, transportation, residence hall dues, health fees and insurance, copy costs, lobby fees, and even linens, among other things.

Do parents have to pay post-secondary support?

The best place to start when answering this question is your existing Order of Child Support. It is possible that post-secondary support was addressed in this order when it was created. If so, there will be a section outlining each parent’s responsibilities.

If it was not addressed (i.e. “reserved”), it can still be revisited. Parents can negotiate an agreement between themselves or one of them can petition the court to help them decide who should pay and how much. If a parent is going to file a petition for post-secondary support, they must do this before basic support terminates.

When a court is determining whether to require parents to help pay for post-secondary support, it will first decide whether the child is dependent on the parents for the “reasonable necessities of life.” These are things like living expenses, food, medical care, and clothing. If yes, the court will then consider a variety of factors when determining whether and for how long post-secondary support should be paid:

  • age of the child;
  • the child’s needs;
  • the expectations of the parties for their children when the parents were together;
  • the child’s prospects, desires, aptitudes, abilities or disabilities;
  • the nature of the postsecondary education sought;
  • the parents’ level of education, standard of living, and current and future resources; and
  • the amount and type of support that the child would have been afforded if the parents had stayed together.

How will the expenses be divided?

Post-secondary support will be divided between the parents based on number of factors. The court will determine each party’s proportional share, using the standards of the child support worksheet, but this is only advisory. The court will also consider whether a parent is paying basic support for other minor(s), whether paying for post-secondary support represents a financial hardship, and what opportunities the child has to get a degree in his/her chosen field.

If I’m ordered to pay support, does my child have to meet any conditions?

For a court order regarding post-secondary support to be binding, your child must fulfill three primary duties. First, your child must enroll in an accredited academic or vocational school and actively pursue a course of study that fulfills his/her career goals. Your child also must maintain good academic standing. This is defined by each school, but is typically a minimum GPA or completion of a minimum number of course hours. Finally, your child must provide both parents full access to all academic records and grades. These are make or break conditions. If any of them is not met, then your child is not entitled to financial support.

How long will I have to pay post-secondary support?

Unless there are exceptional circumstances, a parent’s obligation to pay for post-secondary support cannot go past the child’s 23rd birthday. Exceptional circumstances are defined by statute as mental, physical or emotional disabilities.

How do I pay post-secondary support? Do I have to give the money to my spouse?

Whenever possible, the parents will pay post-secondary support directly to the child’s school or the provider of the service. If that is not possible, the court can order payments be made directly to the child if he/she is living independently. If the child is living with one of the parents, the court can order the other parent to pay post-secondary support to the child or the parent.

Post-secondary support sometimes comes as a surprise to parents. If you have children, it is wise to understand your obligation before they get their acceptance letter(s) and enroll. An experienced family law attorney will be able to review your Order of Child Support, your personal situation, and help you navigate your best course of action to ensure the brightest future for your children.