What is postsecondary educational support?
Under Washington law, postsecondary educational support is the court-ordered payment parents have to make for costs incurred when a child receives additional schooling after graduating from high school. "Secondary" educational expenses, by contrast, are expenses that parents have to pay when their children are in high school.
Postsecondary educational support includes not just trade school, vocational school, and college expenses, but depending on the circumstances, it might even include the costs of graduate school. Washington's courts have reviewed different postsecondary educational expenses and decided that they can include tuition, room and board, residence hall dues, health fees and insurance, copy costs, lobby fees, and even linens, among other things.
Do Washington parents have to pay for postsecondary educational expenses?
Sometimes. The child support schedule that's normally used to calculate child support is only "advisory" when it comes to postsecondary educational support. This means that the schedule isn't binding, but the courts will typically take a look at it. Whichever Washington court ordered child support initially (for example, as part of a divorce decree) also has the "jurisdiction" (authority or power) to order a parent to pay postsecondary educational support when the children become adults, or before, if the issue arises.
If a parent or child is asking another parent to help pay for postsecondary educational expenses, the first thing the court will decide is whether the child is dependent and relying upon the parents for the "reasonable necessities of life," which are basic items like food, medical care, and clothing. If the judge decides that the child isn't financially independent and really does depend on parents for the money necessary to survive, then the judge will move on to consider a number of additional factors, including:
- the child's age
- the child's needs
- the expectations the parents had about their children when they were still a couple
- 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 financial support that the child would have had if the parents had stayed together.
Do I have to pay these expenses if my kids are emancipated?
Generally speaking, when children are emancipated for purposes of a child support order, it means they become legally independent. They're deemed to be adults and are not in need of financial support. This usually happens when they have reached a certain age, graduated from high school, entered the military service, or reached another legally-defined milestone. Kids who have disabilities might be emancipated later, or not at all, if the disabilities are severe.
Washington's courts have determined that even when a parent's child support obligation has ended because the child is emancipated, the courts still have the power to go back, re-open the child support order and order parents to pay educational support. Judges can do this if the circumstances are "compelling" (meaning, extraordinary or warranting special attention).
What if the original child support order doesn't address postsecondary educational support?
Regardless of whether the original order included a provision for postsecondary educational support, Washington courts have the power to add such a provision. If children show that they have the ability to attend college, that constitutes the "substantial change of circumstances" that a judge needs to change the support order.
If I'm ordered to pay postsecondary educational support, does my child have any responsibilities?
Yes. There are two general categories of duties that your child must satisfy.
First, your child has to enroll in an accredited academic or vocational school and actively pursue a course of study that fulfills the child's career goals. Your child also has to maintain good academic standing. "Good academic standing" is defined by the school your child attends, and may consist of something like a minimum GPA or successful completion of a given number of credit hours. If your child is not enrolled in a qualifying school, isn't actively pursuing a course of study that advances career goals, and isn't in good academic standing, then your child isn't entitled to postsecondary educational support.
Second, your child has to give both parents full and equal access to all academic records and grades. This is also a make-or-break condition. If a child doesn't ensure that a parent has access to these records, the child is not entitled to financial support.
How long do I have to pay postsecondary educational support?
Washington law is very clear on this point. Unless there are exceptional circumstances (which are defined by statute as mental, physical, or emotional disabilities), Washington judges can't order parents to pay postsecondary educational support beyond the child's twenty-third birthday.
How do I pay postsecondary educational support?
Wherever possible, you'll pay this kind of financial support directly to your child's school. If direct payment isn't possible, then the court can order parents to make payments directly to the child, provided that the child is living independently. If the child isn't living independently and is living with a parent, then a judge can still order the other parent to pay postsecondary educational support to the child or to the parent.
How are these expenses divided?
Even though the child support schedule is advisory in these maters, postsecondary educational support is divided between the two parents according to their net income. Both parents will need to provide the court with accurate, current information about their income and expenses, and the judge will use this information to decide what percentage of the expense each parent should pay.
What if my adult child and I don't get along?
Some states with postsecondary educational support laws similar to Washington's have a "wallet rule," which means that when the parent and child have a very poor relationship, the child can't treat the parent merely as a blank check. But Washington doesn't have a wallet rule.
Similarly, the factors the court looks at in deciding whether a parent should pay educational support don't include any kind of inquiry into the status of the parent-child relationship. That doesn't mean a judge can't ask about it or consider it, though.
The bottom line is that there are no reported Washington cases where a court refused to make a parent pay postsecondary educational support because the child had a bad attitude or the parent-child relationship was damaged.