Planning for college expenses is hard enough, but it gets even more challenging for those who co-parent. Among other expenses related to the maintenance and welfare of a child during a divorce or child support proceeding, the court sometimes orders a party to pay college costs.
In a related article, we wrote that in Massachusetts, a party may be required to continue paying child support when his or her child heads off to college. Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 208, Section 28, parents have an ongoing duty to support a child who is at least 18 but not yet 21 if the child maintains a legal domicile with a parent and is principally dependent upon that parent for support. Even after a child turns 21, if the child has a legal domicile with a parent, remains principally dependent upon a parent for support and is enrolled in an educational program, a parent may be ordered to pay support until the age of 23.
2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines:
In a recent blog post we also explained the 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. These were recently passed and became effective on September 15, 2017. They provide additional guidelines regarding college cost contributions. On the issue of contributing towards college expenses, the 2017 Guidelines adopts a position that many Probate & Family Court judges have articulated. This issue remains not presumptive but reincorporates the factors of “the cost of post-secondary education” and “the availability of financial aid,” among others, in considering whether to order a parent to contribute towards the cost of college.
The Guidelines establish a presumptive cap on the contribution to pay for college. The cap is 50% of the cost of undergraduate in-state costs for the University of Massachusetts Amherst; this includes fees, tuition, and room and board. If “the Court enters written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount” it can exceed the limit. Lastly, the 2017 Guidelines continues the 2013 Guidelines’ consideration of the amount of a child support order if also ordering a parent or both parents to contribute towards the cost of college, and vice versa.
Start planning early:
What does all of this mean if you are a parent of a college-aged or soon-to-be-college-aged child? Simply put, it is essential that you and your co-parent are on the same page. You must also plan early for college expenses. Turning to a trusted professional may be very helpful.
“An independent educational consultant who knows the college process and the steps to complete the process may help with the added stress between two divided parents,” says Rebekah Elmore, independent educational consultant and founder of Peak College Consulting.
“A professional IEC knows how to deal with the complexity of family dynamics and works closely with everyone to make the college process as stress free as possible. By hiring a college consultant, parents can step back and let the consultant and student work through the steps without the possible stress the divorce or separation has on the relationship. Many of the students that I work with from divorced families like the fact that they don’t have to pick one parent over another. Keeping both parents informed of where we are in the process and what the overarching plan looks like, keeps them both equally informed and equally a part of this amazing journey.”
What is reasonable?
Another consideration comes up as to the amount of college expenses the non-custodial party must pay. Just what is reasonable? When must one pay for an out-of-state school or a more expensive private school? These questions frequently arise, and the court must take many factors into consideration when answering them.
One case illustrates this point. In that case, the parties agreed that they would split college expenses evenly; additionally, they would mutually select the college for their daughter to attend. However, the daughter and mother chose her college without input from the father.  When the father balked at paying $17,000 per year for college, the mother instituted contempt proceedings against him.
A Probate and Family Court judge eventually found that the mother and the child had selected a school “financially out of reach” for the father. The court ordered him to pay approximately one-quarter of the expenses of the private college. On appeal, however, the Appeals Court reversed and remanded the case. The Appeals Court held that the trial judge failed to consider all relevant factors in reaching her decision.
“It was appropriate for the judge to consider whether the cost of Roger Williams was out of reach for [the father]. However, other important equitable factors were not addressed,” the Court held. “From this record, we have very limited information about [the daughter’s] scholastic aptitude, course of study, or any benefits of attending Roger Williams or any alternate schools, or how they might meet [the daughter’s] goals. In sum, more is required to satisfy the requirement that the judge give appropriate consideration to the parties’ intentions as expressed in the college expense provisions.” 
Several Massachusetts cases have weighed in regarding the timing of support orders for college expenses. In several cases, the Appeals Court has stated that determination of college expenses (and their shares by the parties) was premature where the minor children were not yet nearing college, absent some special circumstances. 
Are you looking for an experienced Newburyport or Andover divorce lawyer or family law attorney? If you have any questions about divorce or other domestic relations issues, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete our contact form online, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.
1 Mandel v. Mandel, 74 Mass. App. Ct. 348 (2009).
2 Id., at 357.
3 See, for example, Braun v. Braun, 68 Mass. App. Ct. 846 (2007) and Ketterle v. Ketterle, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 758 (2004).