All parents have a responsibility to support their children, even after a separation or divorce. In order to determine child support, courts use certain guidelines to calculate the amount of each parent’s obligation. Although the amount may be modified over time—due to changing circumstances—the duty to pay child support normally remains in effect until a child reaches the age of majority and/or becomes “emancipated” (that is, self-supporting).
As it turns out, the meaning of emancipation depends on the state in which you reside. Some states take the position that emancipation occurs when a child reaches the age of majority, which in most states is 18 years old. Thus, barring exceptional circumstances, child support obligations usually end at that time. Other states, however, see emancipation as a more fluid concept and will not tie support obligations to reaching majority.
In Pennsylvania, for example, when the child reaches the age of majority, a parent's responsibility to pay child support is automatically terminated. In fact, at one point the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law mandating continued support for higher education, but the state’s Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.
On the other end is New Jersey, which views higher education as a necessity. Therefore, a child who is pursuing a college degree (or vocational school) isn’t necessarily considered emancipated. In light of this, a court can order a parent to continue paying child support up to age 23.
That doesn’t happen automatically, however. A judge has to review the facts of each case to see if continued support is warranted. Some of the factors a court will consider are:
If the court finds that a case meets the applicable standards, it can order a parent to help pay for college. The judge will determine the amount the parent must pay, on a case-by-case basis. Other states that permit continued support for college may utilize guidelines similar to New Jersey’s.
These are just two illustrations of how states address the issue of child support and college expenses. There may be variations of these approaches in other states.
Be aware that in states which require parents to help pay for college, a court may have to determine how to allocate the support amount. For example, in some instances a portion might go directly to the school, and the balance to the parent with whom the child primarily resides when not in school, to cover the child’s needs when home.
Also, depending on your state, “higher education” may include graduate school. In determining whether a parent should contribute at this level, the court will possibly consider factors like the ones listed above.
As you might imagine, if you wait until your child is ready to attend college before addressing the issue of continued support, you could be setting yourself up for post-divorce litigation that will be time-consuming, expensive, and a likely source of anxiety for all concerned, especially the child.
If at all possible, address contribution to college costs at the time of your divorce, thus eliminating a potential dispute down the line. Even states that don’t require contribution will normally recognize and uphold a voluntary agreement to undertake that responsibility.
Because the topic of child support and college expenses is state-specific, consider consulting with an experienced family law attorney in your area to familiarize yourself with your rights and obligations.