College Expenses and Divorce

As you have probably heard by now, a teenager sued her parents in New Jersey alleging that her parents have an obligation to pay for her private high school tuition and college tuition.  The teen alleged that her parents were cruel and kicked her out of the house when she turned 18, refusing to pay for her private high school and college education.  The parents contend that she left voluntarily because she refused to follow the rules of the house.

How would this case play out in Illinois?

In Illinois a child who lives with parents in an intact marriage has no cause of action for college expenses.  The teenager above’s case would be dismissed.

How Do College Expenses Play Out for Divorcing or Divorced Parents?

Parents who are divorcing often put specific college expense provisions in their marital settlement agreements.  The parents can agree as to how the expenses will be apportioned and how much they are willing to pay.  They can also agree to terms for college savings plans or educational trusts.

Parents who are already divorced are bound to the terms of their marital settlement agreements, which sometimes are not so great.  In one case I had, the mother had agreed to split the costs of college education 50/50.  Mom was a nurse and dad owned and insurance agency.  When Mother came to me 10 years later, mother was making $80,000 a year and father was making over $500,000 a year.  Father brought mother to court on a petition for rule because she could not afford to pay 50% of daughter’s college expenses at a large state school where daughter was paying non-resident tuition. The judge made it clear that despite the parties’ disparity in income, she had no choice but to follow the marital settlement agreement.  There was a happy outcome, though.  Father agreed to pay all tuition if mother paid his legal fees, which was only 20% of what she would have owed for college tuition.

Even if the marital settlement agreement is silent on college expenses, one parent can petition the other for contribution pursuant to statute.  The statute governing college expenses requires the judge to look at the finances of both parents, as well as the grades of the child and the child’s ability to secure financing through scholarships and loans.   There is no set formula that the judge must adhere to.

When Should I Petition for College Expenses?

It’s best to bring the matter to court as soon as you know where your child plans to attend college and their financial aid package.  That way the parties can know what part they are responsible for before the school year starts.  Some parents choose to run up the bill for college, taking our loans, etc., then seeking contribution from the other parent when their child is done with college.  This is a mistake, as the court is not required to have the other party reimburse you 50/50, which many people erroneously believe is the standard in Illinois.

Am I Required to Pay For Whatever College My Child Chooses?

Generally, the courts have limited the amount of tuition, room and board to the rate existing at the University of Illinois.  This is another reason why it’s important to file your petition for expenses early.  Its better that you know beforehand how much the other party will have to contribute than bear all of the expense on your own and then lament the fact that the other party was not ordered to pay as much as you wanted.

Can a Child of Divorced Parents Sue for College Expenses?

While it is clear that a child of parents who are still married cannot sue for college expenses, that is not the case for a child of divorced parents.  However, the scope is limited.  A child can sue to enforce the college expenses terms of a marital settlement agreement because the child is considered a third-party beneficiary of the marital settlement agreement.

What Should I Do Next?

If you are currently concerned about college expenses, you should contact me right away.   You can call me now at 708-466-6912 or contact me online. I often meet clients in the evening and on weekends, and all clients get my personal mobile phone number.  Legal problems don’t take weekends off and neither do I.

I represent clients in Chicago, and elsewhere in Illinois including the counties of Cook, Lake, DuPage, Will, Kane, Kendall, and McHenry. I represent clients in uncontested and contested divorces, and other family law matters including paternity, visitation and child support.

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