If you are divorced, and your children plan to attend college, the divorce court can order you to contribute to college expenses after the children turn eighteen.1 If your dissolution decree does not address the division of college expenses, there is significant potential for argument and litigation over what amount each parent should pay; how the child will contribute; and what expenses will be included in an order to pay college expenses. Indiana courts have wide discretion over the amounts that each parent may be required to pay, as well as what types of expenses will be included. This blog covers what you need to know about college expense contributions to make the most of your case with your attorney if you face colleges expenses for your children.
One difficult legal concept to understand is that child support is different from college expenses and what you may be ordered to pay. In Indiana, orders for child support and orders for college expenses are separate and distinct. However, if a court issues an order for payment of college expenses, child support must be reduced so as not to duplicate the college expense order. Typically, for a court to issue an order for parents to contribute to college expenses, the child must be attending or at least enrolled in, a postsecondary educational institution within four (4) months of the child’s 18th birthday. Notwithstanding this requirement, one parent can wait to file a request with the court for the other parent to contribute to college expenses until the child has already started attending college, although usually not after the child has reached the age of 21. There are thus important legal distinctions to be presented at trial or discussed in settlement to make sure child support and college expenses do not overlap. Further, there are technical requirements as to when this request must be made. College expenses do not continue to allow a court to order a parent to pay for graduate or professional degrees.2
Assuming college expenses are at issue, how the court determines who pays what is complex. By statute, if the issue is not resolved, the court must consider the ability and aptitude of the child; the child’s ability to contribute to college expenses; and the parent’s ability to contribute to college expenses. This could result in an order that the parents and the child divide the expenses amongst themselves, with each parent and the child paying 1/3 of the costs, or it could mean that the parent with the greater income is ordered to pay a larger share of the expenses. The child’s required contribution will include any scholarships, grants, and loans awarded to the child, as well as considering in the order if the college selection and cost is relative to other schools and cost is reasonable in the big picture. However, for you to maximize your position as a parent on how the contribution should be made and why, you must carefully prepare your evidence for trial, so the judge has it on the record. Just testifying you cannot pay for college or it is unfair, leaving your thoughts in your mind, or not stating a public university is just as suited for the child as a more expensive private school, is the recipe for a disastrous ruling. Thus, it is imperative you prepare for trial with counsel and give the court the evidence it needs to most likely reach your legal objective or goal on apportionment of college expenses.
With this framework for how a court decides college expenses, it is key to understand the scope of what may constitute college expenses. Within Indiana courts, there is a vast difference between judges on what they consider to be included in the definition of college expenses. They have this discretion. The general guiding legal requirement is that the expense be reasonable and necessary to the child’s education. Some courts will limit this to room and board, tuition, book fees, supplies, and student activity fees. Other courts have included costs such as health care for the child, transportation, car insurance, and clothing. However, for the court to craft a proper order, the expenses must be connected in the evidence to college expenses and needs of education or the trial court abuses its discretion.3 Thus, with counsel, it is key to know your particular judge and his or her general views on college expenses and carefully put on evidence as to why a claimed expense is or is not relative to a college expense.
With all this background, many parents are shocked to learn in the first place they can be ordered to pay anything toward their children’s college expenses since they are normally eighteen and are no longer minors. However, at least in Indiana, that is the case and it does not violate equal protection.4 The issue has been raised in Indiana as to whether it is unconstitutional to require divorced parents to pay their child’s college expenses when children of intact families are not afforded the same entitlement. Married parents can simply say “no”. The Indiana Supreme Court has rejected this argument, reasoning that courts should be able to enforce the expectation that most families encourage their children to attend college, and that it is consistent with family values for parents to contribute to those expenses. Thus, divorced parents who take issue with paying for their child’s college expenses have no legal basis to challenge such an order in Indiana. So, accepting this legal reality will help you focus on understanding and properly negotiating your case or litigating college expenses.
If you are a divorced parent with a child that plans to attend college, you should contact an attorney to discuss your potential obligation for college expenses. You should act as soon as possible so that you can prepare financially and start a discussion with your former spouse as to how expenses will be divided and what will be included. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. attorneys practice throughout the State of Indiana and understand the financial issues surrounding paying for a child’s college education and they actively negotiate and litigate college expense cases. Our attorneys have handled this issue at the trial and appellate level. This blog post is written by Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates and is not intended as specific legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.
- This is not the case in all states, but challenges to college expense contribution have failed in Indiana’s appellate courts.
- Allen v. Allen, 54 N.E.3d 344 (Ind.2016).
- Myers v. Myers, 80 N.E.2d 932 (Ind.Ct.App.2017) (Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. appellate counsel)
- Gill v. Gill, 72 N.E.2d 945 (Ind.Ct.App.2017) (Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. appellate counsel)