Paying for College Education Becomes Issue for Divorced Parents; after a Split, Some States -- Including Georgia -- Can Require You to Foot at Least Part of the Bill for a Child's Tuition

By Diamond, Laura | The Florida Times Union, December 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Paying for College Education Becomes Issue for Divorced Parents; after a Split, Some States -- Including Georgia -- Can Require You to Foot at Least Part of the Bill for a Child's Tuition


Diamond, Laura, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Laura Diamond, The Times-Union

Parents are understandably excited when their child is accepted to college. But would their joy continue if a judge forced them to pay for it?

While there are no laws requiring married parents to pay for their child's college expenses, a growing number of states are allowing courts to order divorced parents to do so.

Seventeen states have provisions allowing courts to order divorced parents to help pay for college, according to a list compiled by attorney Laura Morgan, who chairs the Child Support Committee of the Family Law Section of the American Bar Association.

Florida is not one of them. Georgia is; it allows courts to order parents to continue paying for college until a child turns 20.

That doesn't mean all divorced parents must pay for college. Instead, the laws give judges the authority to order financial assistance on a case-by-case basis.

States and courts are grappling with this issue because of rising tuition costs and the belief that college is necessary for success later in life, said Stephanie Walton, a policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures who has written about the issue.

"This is an issue you're seeing more of," Walton said. "The arguments are pretty compelling on both sides."

Some argue that it is unlawful to distinguish between married and divorced parents.

In 1995, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found a state law allowing courts to order parents who are divorced, separated or unmarried to pay for their child's college unconstitutional. The court ruled that if married parents don't have to pay for college, then neither do divorced parents.

Earlier this year, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to prohibit courts from ordering divorced parents to help pay for college. The New Hampshire Senate is expected to consider the bill next year.

Others say the laws are needed because research shows children of divorce are less likely to attend college, Walton said.

Studies also show that children of divorced parents are less likely to attend top-tier universities and are not as financially successful as their parents.

In 1998, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that there is a rational distinction between married and divorced parents. The court reasoned that children of divorce deserve special consideration because they are less likely to receive as much emotional and financial support as children whose parents are married.

And the U.S. Commission on Interstate Child Support recommends that states direct courts to award child support up to age 22 if a child is enrolled in good standing at a college or vocational school. The group was created as part of the Family Support Act of 1988, a federal act designed in part to improve interstate en- forcement of child support awards.

Enforcement has long concerned Haley Bastian.

Her father owes about $11,000 in child support, she said, and she doubts he would help pay for college even if ordered by a court to do so. Bastian, a junior at the University of North Florida, is using federal grants to pay for college.

"College is so expensive that I knew I couldn't ask my mom to pay for it because she has already paid for so much in my lifetime," Bastian said. "Of course, I would like my dad to pitch in, but I've learned that just because a judge tells a parent to do something doesn't mean they're going to do it. …

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