Child Support for College: Contractual or Not?

On this episode of Love Court on the Alice 96.5 Morning Show, Jessica Anderson answers the questions of a concerned mother of a soon-to-be-college-going daughter. The parents have been divorced for a long time, but at the time of the divorce, both agreed to equally divide all expenses associated with college, including living expenses. Now, the dad has abruptly changed his tune… Find out what Jessica advises in this tricky situation!

The Context

A mother of an eighteen-year-old daughter wrote to Jessica about her sudden problem with her former husband and the father of their child. Their daughter is still in high school but will graduate in June. The parents have been divorced for a long time, and for the most part, they get along. At the time of the divorce, both agreed to equally divide all expenses associated with college, including living expenses. 

Her lawyer at the time informed her that the parents have no legal obligations to pay for their child’s college tuition. However, both parents had gone to college, and the mother thought agreeing to divide the expenses was fair. Since they agreed, her lawyer informed her that a contract was made. She has been saving for this eventuality, by putting money into a 529 Plan and assumed he would do the same. They are both professionals. Their daughter has now been accepted at an out-of-state school.

The ex-husband informed the mother this week that he would only pay for half of what it would cost to go to UNR (a different school). The daughter did not apply to UNR, nor is she interested in going there. She has her heart set on the out-of-state school and is upset that she does not want to go to her father’s house. The mother is asking Jessica if she should make her daughter visit her father (the daughter is saying that she is eighteen and does not have to go anywhere). Additionally, the mother would like to know what her rights are. Will she be forced to pay for the majority of the college fees?

The Answer

The answer that Jessica gives is divided into two separate discussions. She first reiterates what the lawyer said about there being no legal obligation: once a child turns eighteen, the parents are no longer legally required to provide financial support. Child support is required until they graduate from high school. But since they agreed to divide the expense, a contract was formed.

Jessica says that if they agreed and it became part of their divorce decree, it forms part of the court order and is enforceable. However, it is not enforceable by the mother but by the daughter, who became a third-party beneficiary to that contract to agree to divide the college expenses. It is now the right of the daughter to enforce the agreement and sue her father for the money he promised to provide. Jessica says this is not a common occurrence and often advises clients against doing this in their divorce decrees. Not because she doesn’t believe parents should pay for college – she actually does think the law should require parents to at least pay for some part of their child’s higher education – but it places the child in a difficult position, having to sue one or both of their parents by going through the court system.

Alice asks whether the situation would be different if the daughter had chosen to go to UNR, to which Jessica explained that it depends on the contract’s wording because if there was no stipulation as to in-state or out-of-state, then it does not matter. She also says it depends on what the parents can afford, as in-state tuition fees are less expensive than out-of-state tuition fees (the further you travel, the greater the cost). The main problem Jessica sees in this situation is the father dropping this admission on both of them at this time. Why was this not discussed earlier? His daughter would have started applying to colleges months before. It doesn’t seem fair to change his mind and decide which college he will pay for.

Regarding the second discussion, the daughter’s right to sue her father. Firstly, there is no legal right attached to the money placed in a 529 Plan, as the parent owns it, and they may withdraw that money and use it as they wish. The money does not belong to the child. If it was agreed to in the contract that the money cannot be used for anything else, then the other parent can enforce the agreement. That money will be regarded as having been community property.

Jessica also adds that it’s not the best decision for the daughter not to go to her father’s house. This will not get him to agree to pay for her out-of-state tuition. Jessica cannot know if the father is bluffing, frustrated, or cannot afford to pay for an out-of-state college. But she says it’s better to have a conversation between the daughter and the father. He could help her get financial aid if he cannot afford it. He may also be reluctant to pay for her to leave the state, which can be resolved by talking to one another.

Ultimately, she is now legally an adult, and Jessica says she might just have to adjust her expectations.
If you want to contact Love Court, you can do so via the portal Jessica answers every single question in the on-air discussion. She is also happy to engage in an email conversation with the person who wrote in. If you wish for a more in-depth consultation, you can contact Jessica Anderson or her partner John Keuscher at (775) 823-0049.