Pennsylvania law provides that a parent’s entitlement to receive child support from the other parent ends when the child is 18 years old and has graduated from high school. There is no requirement to pay college tuition unless an agreement to pay tuition is in a written marital settlement agreement.
Pennsylvania courts have no authority to order any parent to pay for a child’s college expenses but if parents enter into an agreement, the courts will enforce the agreement. Parents who are separated or divorcing can enter into enforceable agreements about their commitment to help their children with college expenses. Such agreements should be written and should be detailed and specific. The parents should discuss and agree upon the location of the potential colleges and the kinds of expenses to be shared—tuition, room & board, off-campus housing, books, activities, travel, spending money and car expenses. Not all expenses must be shared; but those that are to be shared should be specified. A written agreement to share “college expenses” is too vague—judges resist interpreting contracts broadly. To be effective, the agreement must be as specific as possible.
College support agreements also should address what standard of behavior and academic performance is expected of the student, and whether the parents have any voice in where the student will go to college.
Any college provisions should include disaster clauses releasing the parents from financial college obligations should there be an involuntary catastrophic event that renders a parent disabled, unemployable, or unemployed. The more detail that is included in such agreements, the more efficiently they can be understood and, if necessary, enforced in court.
Parents can structure college funding in many ways. One way is to include provisions for future college contributions on a “proportion to then income” basis. Consider a contribution from the student or a grade average requirement so as to encourage student responsibility. Parents may want to limit their financial obligation to the in-state residential costs of a state school, or put a “cap” on the amount of contribution. They also may want to prioritize the funding sources with student Stafford loans, financial aid, scholarships, grants, and trusts being utilized first. Perhaps parental Plus loans could be utilized or parents could take turns co-signing additional student loans. Future college provisions should consider the duration of the financial assistance – undergraduate only? graduate education? Limited to 5 years – consecutive or cumulative?
Another way is to establish college funding and planning now. There are numerous 529 and other educational plans available. Be sure to check the interplay between the consideration of financial aid and accounts in children’s or the parent’s name. Both parents can determine and set aside specific amounts for ongoing contributions. Make sure provisions include what happens to the unused funds should a student either not attend, not finish, or if there is s surplus of funds. Parents may want to consider increasing pre-emancipation support payments to include monies for a specific college account, with a matching or pro-rated amount to be contributed by the custodial parent.
Finally, provisions should be included to provide that each parent have a say in how and when any funds are provided and when they will not be provided.