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Can Divorced Parents Be Ordered to Help with Their Child’s College Expenses?

— September 2, 2020

If the court does order you to help contribute toward your child’s college expenses, the law provides limits regarding what you can be asked to pay.

If you have children, you have probably given a great deal of thought to the fact that they will one day graduate from high school and head off to the world of higher education. Of course, along with that idea comes the realization of just how expensive it is going to be to send your children to college. Over the last several decades, the cost of tuition at a four-year private university has more than doubled. During that same period, the average tuition at a four-year public school has more than tripled!

Determining how—or even if—you are going to pay for your child’s college education is hard enough for parents who are still married to one another. For those who are divorced, the decision is often even more complicated. However, if you live in Illinois, it is important to understand that the court has the authority to order divorced parents to contribute to their child’s college expenses in certain situations.

College Expenses as a Financial Decision During Divorce

The first thing that you need to know about your potential responsibility regarding your child’s college costs is that Illinois law recognizes the issue as of one of financial relevance in a divorce rather than a right of the child. If this seems confusing, we can look at it in a different way. Child support for a minor child is a financial matter, obviously, but the law sees child support as an entitlement belonging to the child—an entitlement that cannot be waived by either parent following a divorce.

Once the child has graduated high school or turned 18 years old, whichever is later, he or she is no longer entitled to support from his or her parents. The provision in the law that addresses help with college costs refers to such help as “non-minor support” but specifies that the child “is not entitled to file a petition for contribution.” In practice, this means that the issue is one that is meant to be resolved as a financial matter between the parents in their divorce.

Check Your Divorce Decree

If you are a divorced parent, you and your spouse should have each received a copy of the decree entered by the court severing the bonds of your marriage. In that decree, the court will have included all of the terms of your divorce, including your arrangements for sharing parental responsibilities and dividing your marital property. If the issue of paying for your child’s college was addressed during your divorce, whatever agreement you reached will also be formalized in your divorce decree.

For example, if at the time of your divorce, you and your spouse explicitly stated that neither of you would be responsible for paying for your child’s college education, the court will likely enforce that agreement when your child is ready to go off to school. If your decree shows that you agreed to split college expenses equitably, the court may order a hearing to determine the portion that each of you will be responsible for paying. If your divorce decree is silent on the matter of college costs, the court has the authority to order you, your spouse, or both of you to help your child.

What Will the Court Consider?

When making a determination regarding non-minor support for college expenses, the court will take into account a number of factors. According to the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, the court is required to consider:

  • The current and anticipated financial resources of each parent, including their retirement savings
  • The current and anticipated needs of each parent, including their needs in retirement
  • The current and anticipated financial resources of the child, including available grants and scholarships
  • The child’s academic performance
  • The standard of living that the child would have had if the divorce had not occurred

The court may also consider any other factor that it deems to be relevant to the situation. These considerations are intended to give the court a full understanding of each parent’s financial situation following the divorce and to ensure that any contributions that may be ordered are equitable. For example, it would not be in anyone’s best interest to order the child’s father to help pay for his child’s college costs if he is struggling in good faith to afford his own reasonable living expenses. On the other hand, if the father is living comfortably, and the child’s mother is struggling, ordering the father to contribute to college expenses may be an equitable decision.

The Role of the Student

The statutory considerations include the child’s academic performance and his or her resources, both of which may be important factors. They can also be interrelated. For example, if your son struggled to graduate from high school, but he is now insisting that he wants to study economics at Northwestern University, the court may be hesitant to order his parents to help—at least until he is accepted into the program.

College students at a graduation ceremony. Image listed as public domain by PXFuel.

Consider another scenario in which your daughter graduated at the top of her high school class and has several scholarship offers to attend prestigious universities. If your daughter, however, has decided to attend a school that did not offer her a scholarship, the court would need to take into account the money that she is effectively “leaving on the table.” Similarly, partial scholarships would reduce the amount that you and your ex-spouse might be ordered to help with.

Limits on Non-Minor Support

If the court does order you to help contribute toward your child’s college expenses, the law provides limits regarding what you can be asked to pay. First, your money must be used for educational expenses, which include tuition, room, board, books, supplies, fees, travel, utilities, and medical costs while your child is enrolled in an undergraduate program or trade school certification program. Except for good cause shown, the court shall base its calculations for tuition, room, and board on what an average student would pay in the same school year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All of the expenses must be incurred before your child turns 23 years old. For good cause shown, the court could extend this limitation to the child’s 25th birthday.

The court may terminate an ongoing order for non-minor support if the child does not maintain a “C” average.” If the child gets married, the order will be terminated as well.

Speak with a Qualified Lawyer

If you are the divorced parent of a child who is approaching college age, contact an experienced Kane County family law attorney to discuss your situation. We are equipped to provide skilled guidance and representation in any proceedings related to non-minor support for educational expenses. Our team will do everything we can to ensure your child’s needs are met while protecting your rights and best interests.

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