As you may be aware of, Massachusetts child support laws do not remove the onus of paying child support once a child reaches the age of 18. And, if a child is planning to attend college, the cost of tuition also becomes a factor involving both parents. Many questions swirl around this common household situation such as “Does paying tuition change the amount of support paid?”, “Are both parents expected to kick in equally?” and so on. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions on this sometimes sticky issue:
1: Can the courts make me pay into a college savings plan?
Short answer: it really depends on the age of the child at the time a child support settlement is reached.
Long answer: While it’s never too early to start saving for college no matter who is paying child support, the closer a child comes to his or her junior year of high school, the more likely that future college tuition will become a factor as to the amount of child support paid. And, if there is resistance to modifying the amount of child support to include the new expense, a “Complaint for Modification” can be filed to force a review of the amount of child support being paid.
2: Once my child enters college, I no longer need to pay child support. Right?
Actually, according to Massachusetts guidelines, you may be required to pay both child support and to contribute to the cost of a child’s (or children’s) college expenses. However, the payment of those college expenses may result in modification of the child support amount. Factors the court will consider in deciding whether modification is needed, will include the amount each party pays toward the college expenses, whether the child lives at home or on campus, and whether the child is contributing or should be contributing to his or her college costs and living expenses.
3: Can I have a say in which college my child goes to if I am indeed going to provide tuition support?
It is common for a divorce or custody settlement agreement or judgment to provide that the parties shall consult and agree to the choice of college – with the child’s input, of course, and with recognition of the child’s aptitudes and the parents’ financial abilities. However, it is important that they do so in a timely and good faith manner. Therefore, if a party refuses or neglects to make himself or herself heard or defers to the other parent, and then objects to payment after the decision is made and the child is enrolled, the Court may consider that you have acquiesced to the decision made. On the other hand, if you and your ex do not agree as to the choice of schools or if your ex has deliberately left you in the dark during the application process, then you should raise your concerns promptly so that the issues may be addressed before the decisions are made.
4: What are common options?
Depending on the circumstances of each case, some common outcomes as follows (although this is not an exclusive list):
The Child Support Guidelines states that a Judge will not order a party to pay in excess of fifty percent of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, unless the Court enters written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount. In such a context the college costs are defined as the mandatory fees, tuition, and room and board for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, as set out in the “Published Annual College Costs Before Financial Aid” in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges.
If the parties’ finances allow, another common option is that the parties share equally the college costs.
A third option imposes a financial obligation on the child to contribute, to force the child to have some “skin” in the game, such as requiring each parent and the child to pay one third of the college costs.
What this boils down to is that there are many factors in play to determine who is going to contribute what to tuition. How a case is brought to a judge makes a big difference in how an amount to be paid will be decided. Therefore, getting an attorney who knows the law well can be well worth it.