Divorce and College Expenses

A divorced parent’s obligation to pay for the child’s college expenses or trade school will depend on the state in which the parents live and any agreement between the parents regarding such expenses. 

In some states, courts will require parents to pay for a child’s college expenses, assuming the parents can afford it and the child is a good enough student to benefit from college. In these states, courts reason that the child’s parents probably would have helped pay for the child’s education had the marriage remained intact and that the child’s education should not suffer because of the divorce. 

For example, in an Illinois case, the father during the marriage was very enthusiastic about having his son attend his alma mater, Dartmouth College. The father took his son to Dartmouth three times and often bought his son clothes and memorabilia with the Dartmouth logo. The father even arranged for influential alumni of Dartmouth to write letters of recommendation for his son. 

After all these efforts, the son got into Dartmouth. But at about that time, the father and mother divorced, and the father no longer wanted to pay for his son to go to Dartmouth. The Illinois courts said that under these circumstances, the father (who earned more than $200,000 per year) had to pay for his son to go to Dartmouth. 

However, in other states, a parent’s obligation to pay support ceases when the child reaches the age of majority (or graduates high school). Thus the parents are not obliged to pay for the child’s college education. Courts in these states note that married parents are not required to pay for their child’s college expenses, and therefore divorced parents are not required to do so either. 

Regardless of the state’s law on compulsory payment of college expenses, the mother and father can agree as part of their divorce settlement to pay for these costs. Courts usually will enforce those agreements. 

If parents have earmarked funds earned during the marriage for a child’s education, those funds generally would be marital property subject to division between the mother and father by the court. If, however, the funds are in accounts or in savings bonds that have the child’s name on them, the funds probably would be viewed as belonging to the child (although one parent may be given the responsibility of managing the funds until the child starts college or reaches adulthood). 

Children generally are expected to help pay for their college education and related expenses by working at summer jobs and using some of their own savings. If there is such an obligation, the parents’ obligation to pay will depend on the amount of income and assets of the parents. A parent with a low income usually will not be expected to pay for the child’s college education. 

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