“Who will have to pay for our children’s college expenses?” is one of the most frequent questions posed to divorce lawyers in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Westport. Given that divorce is often a time of great financial uncertainty and anxiety for divorcing spouses, it is certainly understandable that many of our clients are concerned about whether, and to what extent, each parent will be obligated to contribute to their children’s college expenses.
Most clients are aware, even before they meet with a family law attorney, that a primary custodial parent will be entitled to receive child support payments from a non-custodial parent under Connecticut law. However, while such child payments are meant to cover a broad range of child-related expenses (such as food, shelter, clothing and other basic necessities), child support obligations do not account for college costs. In fact, child support obligations extend only until a child reaches the age of eighteen (or, in situations where a child does not graduate from high school by age eighteen, until the earlier to occur of a child’s graduation from High School or his or her 19th birthday).
Instead, college costs are addressed separately from child support obligations under Connecticut law. Specifically, pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-56c, courts in Connecticut are empowered to issue “Educational Support Orders.” An Educational Support Order is an order entered by a court requiring a parent to provide support for a child (or children) to attend an institution of higher education or a private occupational school for the purpose of attaining a bachelor’s or other undergraduate degree, or other appropriate vocational instruction. Notably, however, there are certain limitations and parameters that apply to the issuance of Educational Support Orders in Connecticut, which can be summarized as follows:
· A court may only require a parent to contribute to college education expenses if the court determines, as a matter of fact that, “it is more likely than not that the parents would have provided support to the child for higher education or private occupational school if the family were intact.”
· If a court determines that it is more likely than not that the parents “would have” paid for college education expenses had they remained married, then the court can order the parents to pay for any necessary educational expenses, including room, board, dues, tuition, fees, registration and application costs, but with two significant limitations: (a) a court cannot extend a parent’s obligation to contribute to such costs beyond a child’s 23rd birthday; and (b) a court may not obligate parents to pay for such expenses in an amount that exceeds the amount charged by the University of Connecticut for a full-time in-state student (unless otherwise agreed by the parties).
· When creating an educational order (including making a determination as to how college education costs should be allocated between the parents), courts are directed to consider “all relevant circumstances,” including:
(1) The parents’ income, assets and other obligations, including obligations to other dependents;
(2) The child’s need for support to attend an institution pf higher education or private occupational school considering the child’s assets and the child’s ability to earn income;
(3) The availability of financial aid from other resources, including grants and loans;
(4) The reasonableness of the higher education to be funded considering the child’s academic record and the financial resources available;
(5) The child’s preparation for, aptitude for and commitment to the higher education; and
(6) Evidence if any of the institution of higher education private occupational school the child would attend.
In the majority of our cases at Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie, LLC where there are minor children of the marriage, we are able to resolve the issue of payment of college costs through a negotiated settlement. This is particularly true where parties have already set aside funds to pay for a portion of their children’s anticipated college costs (usually in a college savings account, such as a 529 Account). However, in situations where a resolution cannot be reached through negotiation, the attorneys at Broder Orland Murray & DeMattie, LLC are highly experienced at litigating the issue of Educational Support Orders and presenting the strongest possible arguments to obtain favorable court orders for our clients.