Can separated or divorced parents be required to contribute to the costs of their children's college or private school?

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In the early 1990s, several Pennsylvania courts and the Pennsylvania legislature attempted to require separated or divorced parents to contribute toward their children’s college costs. In 1995, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that since child support obligations cease when the recipient child reaches his or her 18th birthday, no extension of additional obligations for college tuition can be imposed on separated or divorced parents.

If you entered into a support or divorce settlement agreement that obliges you to contribute toward your children’s college tuition, the agreement is likely to be enforceable. Private agreements are not affected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision.

Divorced or separated parents have a duty to provide for their minor children’s private school education, as long as such an education is a “reasonable” expense. Private school for a minor child is reasonable if it is proven that the child will benefit from such an education and if private schooling is consistent with the family’s standard of living and station in life prior to the parties’ separation.

In a Pennsylvania case, a father was ordered to contribute toward private schooling for his son. After attending public school for several years, the child’s mother transferred him to a private school, assisted initially by a scholarship. When the scholarship money ran out, the mother petitioned for additional child support to defray the private school tuition.

The court found that since the son was a gifted child and was enjoying a markedly better social life in private school, he was benefiting from the change. The court rejected the father’s claims that public school placement was reasonable since the child’s grades in public school were excellent. Instead, the court focused on the social, mental, and physical benefits provided by the private school. The court also noted that a grown child of the marriage had a history of private schooling and private summer camp trips, evidencing that the family’s station in life during the marriage included private school expenses.

If you are entering into a support or divorce settlement agreement, the payment of college and/or private school tuition may be an issue for negotiation. You should not negotiate such an agreement without carefully considering the duration and amount of any tuition obligations. Other issues to resolve include identifying particular schools the child may attend, providing the payor parent with access to the child’s grades and records, specifying the child’s responsibility to pursue loans and/or scholarships, establishing tax credit entitlements, and permitting modification of the agreement in the event of the payor parent’s job loss or disability.