Are parents legally obligated to pay for their child's college?

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Parents do not have a legal duty to pay for their child’s college—with one exception.

 

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate over whether parents should be responsible for their child’s postsecondary educational expenses. On the one hand, it is nearly impossible for a student to shoulder the costs of a college education without recourse to student loans, resulting in a nationwide student loan crisis weighing down tens of millions of college graduates. On the other hand, paying for a child’s college can come at the expense of saving for one’s retirement, and it can be difficult to decide which should take priority. While the question of moral duty is hardly an easy one to answer, that of legal duty is, luckily for us, much more straightforward. The short answer is, parents whose marriage is intact are not legally obligated to pay for their child’s college. Parents who are divorced may or may not be legally obligated depending on the terms of their divorce settlement and their state of residency. 

 

When it comes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the Department of Education assumes that a dependent student will have the financial support of his or her parents. This does not mean, however, that the parents are legally obligated to pay for the student’s education. This can put the student in a difficult position if the parents refuse to pay for their child’s cost of college. Since the FAFSA takes the parent’s assets and income into account when determining the student’s eligibility for aid, the student might not have access to grants or federal loans even if the parent isn’t contributing anything toward his or her education. In this case, the student might have to resort to private loans, which are much more expensive. In other words, although parents don’t have a legal duty to contribute to their child’s postsecondary educational expenses, they should recognize that this will put their child at a severe disadvantage when it comes to their eligibility for financial aid—federal, state, or institutional.

 

Although the FAFSA does not require information from the noncustodial parent, there are some cases in which the noncustodial (or custodial) parent is required to contribute to the child’s education. (Related: How Do Noncustodial Parents Affect Financial Aid?) For example, some divorce settlements include responsibility for educational costs, and if both parties agreed to the terms at the time of the settlement, such agreements are legally binding and, therefore, enforceable. These settlements generally contain specific details about how much of the child’s college costs each party is responsible for and how long the obligation will continue.  

 

In the absence of an agreement, parents may still be legally obligated to help pay for the child’s college education. It all depends on the state as different states have different family laws. “Some state laws give courts the power to award college support beyond the age of majority, also called post-secondary or post-minority support,” says the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), “College support may be in addition to child support, a part of child support, or a separate payment after regular child support ends.” The age of majority refers to the age at which an individual is no longer considered a minor. The following states allow the court to order college support from a parent. Note that the parent in question may be either custodial or noncustodial. 

  • Connecticut: courts can order college support for up to four full academic years and until the child reaches the age of 23. 
  • Illinois: courts can order college support until the child fails to maintain a cumulative “C” grade point average, reaches the age of 23, receives a bachelor’s degree, or marries.
  • Iowa: courts can order college support, the amount of which will depend on 1. the cost of attending an in-state public institution and the cost of necessary postsecondary educational expenses and 2. the child’s financial resources.
  • Massachusetts: courts can order college support if the child is domiciled with a parent and is principally dependent on the parent for enrollment until the child reaches the age of 23.
  • Mississippi: courts can order college support until the child reaches the age of 21.
  • Missouri: courts can order college support until the child receives a bachelor’s degree or reaches the age of 22.
  • New Jersey: courts can order college support if the child is enrolled full time in a postsecondary education program 
  • New York: courts can order college support until the child reaches the age of 21.
  • North Dakota: courts can order educational support past the age of majority if they deem it appropriate.
  • Oregon: courts can order college support until the child reaches the age of 21.
  • South Carolina: courts can order college support for up to four years if the child cannot otherwise go to school and the parents have the financial means to help pay for the education.
  • Utah: courts can order college support until the child reaches the age of 21. The amount is decided on a case by case basis by the judge in question.
  • Washington: courts can order college support if the child is a dependent and relies on the parents for basic necessities. The court can exercise its discretion when determining how long the postsecondary educational support will last.

NCSL has a chart detailing each state’s college support laws, which you can access here. Because laws constantly change, we recommend that you check your state’s law and get in contact with a lawyer specializing in family law for the latest and most accurate information. Think of this article as a starting point, pointing you in the right direction before you conduct your own independent legal research.

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