Who Pays for College After a Divorce?

  •   |   Meghan Freed

Updated November 25, 2023

We are often asked, “Who pays for college after a divorce?”

College expenses are not included in child support, but many parents still agree to contribute to college costs.  But what about when they disagree about how much each parent will contribute — or when one parent does not wish to participate at all?  How does financial aid fit in?

Can Connecticut Family Courts Order Parents to Pay College Tuition?

The short answer is that Connecticut family courts may order one or both parents to contribute to expenses for a child between the ages of 18 and 23 who is a full-time student at a “post-secondary school” like college or a similar type of educational program.  Courts do this via an “educational support order.”

Read: Paying for Private School During Divorce

When Do Courts Enter Educational Support Orders?

There are two main options here, and they tend to shake out differently depending on whether the parents agree.  Many parents reach an agreement in their divorce, including regarding college.  Parents reach agreements via negotiation in litigation, or in litigation alternatives like mediation and collaborative divorce.

Read: Parallel Parenting

Option 1: Time of the Divorce

Parents can agree how to handle college expenses at the time of the divorce.  If they can’t decide, they can ask the court to decide later.  This is referred to as “reserving the court’s jurisdiction.” If the court orders at the divorce itself do not expressly reserve the court’s jurisdiction, the court will have no authority to enter an educational support order down the road.

Option 2: Reserve Jurisdiction

If the parents do not agree on handling college expenses at the time of the divorce, the court can reserve jurisdiction or not — it’s up to the court.

If you meet the requirements for an educational support order, the court can enter it at the time of the divorce.  Or, the court may reserve jurisdiction to enter an educational support order post judgment, at a later date.  This may happen if, for example, the children are young at the time of the divorce.  If the court reserves jurisdiction, either parent may petition the Court to enter an educational support order later.

Again, if the Court does not reserve jurisdiction, it cannot later enter an educational support order.

What Are the Requirements for an Educational Support Order?

The court cannot enter an educational support order unless the court finds that it is more likely than not that, had the family remained intact, the parents would have provided support for a child’s undergraduate college education or private occupational school.  

If so, the court then considers “all relevant circumstances,” including the:

  • Parents’ income, assets and other obligations, including obligations to other dependents
  • Child’s need for support to attend an institution of higher education or private occupational school considering the child’s assets and the child’s ability to earn income
  • Availability of financial aid from other sources, including grants and loans
  • Reasonableness of the higher education to be funded considering the child’s academic record and the financial resources available
  • Child’s preparation for, aptitude for, and commitment to higher education
  • Evidence, if any, of the institution of higher education or private occupational school the child would attend.

Read: What Is Co-Parenting?

Can Courts Order Divorced Parents to Pay for Anything Beyond College Tuition?

In addition to tuition, a court can order parents to pay for educational expenses like room, board, dues, fees, registration costs, application costs, books, and health insurance.  Parents can always agree to pay for more — or for graduate school.

What is the Maximum a Judge Can Order a Divorced Parent to Contribute Towards College?

An educational support order may not exceed the amount charged by the University of Connecticut for a full-time, in-state student at the time the child enters college.  Family lawyers often referred to this as the “UConn cap.” The UConn cap does not prevent parents from agreeing to contribute more.

Strategies for Negotiating College Funding During Divorce Proceedings

Negotiating college funding agreements during divorce proceedings requires careful consideration and planning.  Here are some strategies to help parents navigate this process:

1.  Open Communication: Effective communication between parents is crucial.  Discussing college funding early on and working together to create a plan can lead to better outcomes for everyone involved.

2.  Consider Parental Contributions: When determining the financial responsibilities, consider each parent’s ability to contribute based on their current and future financial situations.  This may involve evaluating income, assets, and potential changes in circumstances.

3.  Explore College Choices: For older teens, research potential colleges and their associated costs.  Most private institutions exceed the UConn cap.  Consider the child’s academic abilities, career goals, and financial aid opportunities when making decisions.

By following these strategies and working together, parents can create a college funding agreement that meets the needs of their child while considering their own financial circumstances.

Intersection Between Family Court Orders, College Financial Aid, & Divorce

The intersection between the Connecticut family court orders via educational support orders and student loans can be complex.  As we have covered, educational support orders, typically issued in the context of child support arrangements, may require one or both parents to contribute financially to a child’s educational expenses.  When it comes to student loans, the responsibility for paying them off often falls on the students themselves. Still, in some cases, parents may co-sign or otherwise assume responsibility for their child’s educational debt.

In Connecticut, if a parent is obligated to contribute to a child’s education through a support order, they may argue that their financial obligations toward the child’s education should be considered when assessing their ability to take on the student loan debt.  The interaction between these legal obligations and student loans can vary based on the specifics of the court order, the child’s age, and the circumstances surrounding the loans, highlighting the importance of seeking experienced legal advice to navigate this complex intersection effectively.

The Role of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) plays a significant role in determining a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid.  When parents are divorced or separated, the FAFSA requires information from both parents.  This is true regardless of custody arrangements or agreements.

To complete the FAFSA, both parents need to provide their financial information, including income, assets, and other relevant details.  The information is used to calculate the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which determines the student’s eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs.

It’s important for divorced or separated parents to communicate and cooperate when completing the FAFSA.  Failure to do so can result in delays or denial of financial aid.  By working together and providing accurate information, parents can maximize their child’s eligibility for financial assistance.

Navigating the Connecticut Higher Education Trust (CHET) Program

The Connecticut Higher Education Trust (CHET) program is a state-sponsored college savings plan that provides tax-advantaged savings options for families.  It allows parents to save for their child’s college education and offers various investment options to help grow the savings over time.

In the context of divorce, the CHET program can be a valuable tool for college funding.  The program allows parents to contribute to the account and designate a beneficiary, typically their child.  You can use funds in the account for qualified education expenses, including tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

During divorce proceedings, parents can negotiate and agree on how the CHET account will be managed and utilized.  This can provide clarity and peace of mind regarding college funding, ensuring that the child’s education is prioritized and adequately funded.

Scholarships & Grants

While parents may share some or all responsibility for college funding after divorce, it’s important to explore other options to alleviate the financial burden.  Scholarships and grants can provide additional funds to help cover college expenses.

Encourage your child to seek out scholarships and grants that align with their academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and personal interests.  Many organizations, institutions, and foundations offer scholarships based on various criteria, including merit, financial need, and specific fields of study.

Additionally, it’s crucial to stay informed about federal and state grant programs that may be available.  These programs can provide financial assistance based on the student’s financial need and other eligibility criteria.

By exploring these options and encouraging your child to search for scholarships and grants actively, you can potentially reduce the financial strain associated with college funding after divorce.

Next Steps

Navigating college funding after divorce in Connecticut can be a complex process.  However, by understanding the legal obligations, considering the factors that the court takes into account, exploring funding options, and seeking professional guidance, parents can make informed decisions that benefit both their child’s future and their own financial well-being.

Remember, effective communication, careful planning, and focusing on the child’s best interests are essential.  By working together and considering all available resources, divorced parents can create a college funding plan that sets their child up for success and minimizes the financial strain on both parties.

With an experienced family law attorney’s guidance, you can navigate the complexities of college funding with confidence and ensure a bright future for your child.

As always, if you have questions or want to learn more about how college costs, child support, divorce, or post-judgment motions might work in your specific situation, please contact us here.

Freed Marcroft LLC

Freed Marcroft LLC