In parts one, two, and three of this article, I discussed contribution to college expenses, and the most frequently asked questions regarding this portion of the law. In this part four, I will examine limitations of this section, burdens placed upon the child in the process, and ways that you can protect yourself financially.
Even though this statute is about as far from “parent-friendly” as you can get, there are a few portions of the section itself that offer some protections for parents. Let's discuss the actual text of the statute first.
The first protection comes in the form of a time limit. The statute clearly states that no petition for contribution to college expenses shall be brought after your child's twenty-third birthday, except for good cause shown, but in no event later than the child's twenty-fifth birthday. What this means in practice is that your ex-spouse has to file the motion with the court prior to your child's twenty-third birthday, unless there were some truly extenuating circumstances. In the past, courts have held these types of circumstances to be things such as a multiyear life-threatening illness, deployment in the Armed Forces, becoming pregnant and carrying the child to term, or incarceration. And if your ex-spouse fails to file this petition prior to your child's twenty-fifth birthday, for any reason, it must be denied.
A second protection comes in the form of your child's diligence. The statute clearly states that if your child fails to maintain a “C” average, attains the age of twenty-three, gets a baccalaureate degree, or gets married, your obligation to contribute terminates. So, if your child goes to college and goofs off, getting lousy grades, then your obligation is over. If your child gets her undergraduate degree, your obligation is also over, and you cannot be compelled to contribute to a Master's degree or a doctorate program. If your child decided to work for several years after high school and went to college late, your obligation terminates when they turn twenty-three, even if they're not done. And finally, if your child decides to get married, then they become someone else's obligation.
A third protection comes in the form of a college savings account. You may or may not have some sort of 529 plan or college savings plan for your child. If you do, the money you have in that plan at the time of your divorce will undoubtedly be considered part of the child's contribution. However, any amount of money that you put in there after you were divorced gets considered as part of your contribution. Therefore, it's in your best interest to dump as much money into that type of account, post-divorce, that you possibly can. It's tax-free, and it can prevent you from paying a lot of money down the road.
A fourth and final protection comes in the form of financial aid. As I mentioned in part three of this article, if your child earns a grant or scholarship based on their academic performance or their athletic skills, the court will generally count that as part of their contribution. However, if by virtue of your nationality, your FAFSA form, or some reason your child receives a grant or financial aid (not related to their individual efforts), that aid will frequently be taken “off the top” of the college expenses by the courts, thus reducing the amount of any share your obligated to pay at the end.
During litigation involving contribution to college expenses, these are the main protections the parents have. Under certain circumstances, there are other defenses to contribution the parents can raise, such as: being shut out of the college selection process, being shut out of the child's life in general, and/or the quality of the relationship between the child and parent. As I stated in previous parts of this article, this area of the law truly benefits from having an experienced lawyer on your side, due to all the nooks, crannies, and exceptions to the rule. If your child is approaching college-age, or if you and your ex-spouse are having problems agreeing on who's going to pay for what, please do not hesitate to contact me. Having a plan to deal with your child's college expenses, and putting that plan into place months before they go off to college, is often crucial to emerging from this process financially unharmed. Contact me today and let's set up a time to discuss how we can position you to succeed.