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College Tuition and Child Support in Kentucky

Many recent high school graduates are enjoying their last weeks of summer before entering their next stage: college. For parents, the time may be bittersweet. There is excitement about a child embarking on the next stage of his/her life, but there also may be worry and a hint of sadness. And, of course, there are tuition bills. For divorced parents, tuition payments can be not only a question of how, but also who... as in which parent will be responsible for paying for a child's postsecondary education?

Earlier this year, a New Jersey teenager filed suit against her estranged parents seeking payment for her outstanding private high school tuition costs and future college payments. While the teenagers' parents were not divorced, it brought new attention to the question of whether parents owe their children a higher education, in a world where a college degree is increasingly becoming a necessity.

The "age of majority" is the legal age, established under state law, at which an individual is considered to be an adult. It is also normally the age at which child support obligations cease. For most states, age eighteen (18) is the age of majority; for others, it may be when the child graduates from high school or becomes twenty-one (21). Financial obligations for children may extend past the age of majority if the parties so agree in a divorce decree or child support order.

In Kentucky, it is unlikely that a parent must provide financial support to a child in college in the absence of an agreement. Other states have ruled that college can be considered a necessity and that financially capable parents in divorce cases can be required to help pay for it.[1] A minority of states have taken the opposite approach, holding that courts cannot order a non-custodial parent to help pay for college.[2]

The important takeaway is that parties should contemplate potential college expenses in negotiating a settlement agreement or other child support provisions. In Kentucky, if a custodial parent has not had the forethought to include this expense in agreements, then he or she may not have any redress for monetary support from the other parent. College expense provisions may be overlooked, especially if a child is young when the divorce occurs. Negotiations involving higher education support should include, among other issues, the percentage of college expenses for which each parent will be responsible, restrictions on what will be covered (room and board, books, living expenses, etc.), and a time frame for payments (i.e., four years to obtain a bachelor's degree). In some cases, a lump sum payment may be preferable.

As a practical matter, it can be difficult to ascertain the future costs of a child's education. Unknown factors, such as the child's ability to earn money during school and whether scholarships or grants are available, may further complicate the equation. Despite the unknowns, dealing with the issue at the time of divorce, rather than afterward, is always the best approach. Consulting with a family law attorney can help you better understand all of your options, and can help you prepare to provide your child with a bright and stable future.

[1] See, e.g., Newburgh v. Newburgh, 443 A.2d 1031(1982)(New Jersey courts have jurisdiction to award a payment of support and expenses of a child attending college even though the child has reached the age of majority); In re Marriage of Crocker, , 971 P.2d 469 (1998)(Or. Rev. Stat. § 107.108 authorizes a court to order a parent to pay support for a child regularly attending post-secondary education to age 21); Conn. Gen. Stat. §46b-56c (Connecticut court may enter an order with respect to the education of a child through the age of 23 for the purpose of obtaining a bachelor's degree or vocational instruction).

[2] See, e.g., Zetterman v. Zetterman, 512 N.W.2d 622 (1994)(A Nebraska district court in a dissolution action may not order child support beyond the age of the majority of a child over the objection of any parent absent a previous agreement between the parents); H.P.A. v. S.C.A., 704 P.2d 205 (Alaska 1985)(Alaska courts may not require either parent to pay for post-majority college support).

© 2020 by McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. All rights reserved.


About this Author

Brittany Blackburn Koch, McBrayer Law Firm, Litigation Family Attorney

Brittany Blackburn Koch is a member of the firm's litigation group. Her practice is diverse, with a primary focus on civil litigation and family law. Her civil litigation practice includes the areas of contract disputes, personal injury, and employment law, which consists of representing employers in state and federal trial courts for issues associated with the enforcement of no-compete agreements, the investigation and defense of discrimination claims, and the negotiation and enforcement of severance agreements.

Ms. Koch provides a variety of family law services ranging from the...