Who Pays for College for My Child?

In North Carolina Family Law, the issue of college expenses and child support is a hotly debated topic and a frequent cause for dispute between parents. N.C. State University estimated the total “cost of attendance”, which includes tuition, books, housing, meals, transportation, and personal expenses to be $22,954 for in-state residents for the 2014-2015 school year. When the cost of a typical four year college experience exceeds $80,000, it is vital for divorced parents to address how this responsibility is distributed. North Carolina courts do not have the authority via Child Support or any other statute to order either parent to pay for college expenses. Child Support most often terminates when a child reaches age 18 or graduates high school, whichever occurs last, and thereafter the court’s jurisdiction expires. It then makes sense that the court could not order either parent to pay for college expenses once the child is no longer under the court’s jurisdiction for financial support. Although the court does not have authority to direct payment of a child’s college expense, the parents may voluntarily enter into an agreement on how those expenses are paid. The North Carolina Court of Appeals has regularly found that parents may enter into contractual obligations, like those related to the payment of college expenses, which are greater than what the law imposes. There are a myriad of different ways the responsibility of a child’s college expenses can be distributed. Common agreements include one parent being wholly responsible for the expenses or a sharing of expenses, either equally or relative to the parent’s incomes. Qualifiers may also be included, such as a limitation to in-state or public school costs or requirements on progress towards graduation by the child. If an agreement is reached on the payment of a child’s college expenses, it is best practice to document that agreement. The written agreement may be included in an out of court contract or incorporated into a consent order which is filed with the court. Either type of document is enforceable by the court, although with different enforcement mechanisms. So while the court does not have statutory authority to order payment of college expenses, the court can order one party to pay those costs if it was included in a properly-executed contract or consent order. Even though the court cannot order payment of college costs in Child Support, it is an important item to address in any Child Support settlement. If you have questions about how your child’s college may be paid, please call us today at (704) 810-1400 to schedule a consultation.
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