August 2016 Bar Bulletin
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August 2016 Bar Bulletin

Who Pays for Supporting a College-Bound Child?

By Lisa DuFour and
Sharon Friedrich

 

Time to book airline tickets (or plan a car trip), pack extra-long twin sheets and hangers, and purchase a small refrigerator and microwave: to deliver a child to college. But wait, who has to pay the costs for this expensive educational pursuit?

The University of Washington cost for in-state tuition for the 2015–16 school year was $11,310 and total costs with housing and other expenses average $27,034 to $33,513 per academic year.1 The costs to attend an out-of-state college can range from $35,000 to $70,000 per academic year, not including expenses for cell phone, car insurance, medical insurance and travel.2

Even Bellevue College charges $4,479 for tuition and fees for the 2016–17 academic year with average school-year costs of $11,859 for a student living at home and $18,519 for a student living on his or her own (this must assume that the student has roommates if the costs for housing are only an additional $740 per month).3

Establishment of an Order
To Pay for Post-Secondary Support

The Washington Legislature has declared that unmarried parents can be required to pay for college for their children (referred to as “post-secondary” support) even though married parents cannot be required to contribute. This may be unfair treatment under the law, but that is what the Legislature has decided because the parents are no longer making financial decisions together:4

The court shall exercise its discretion when determining whether and for how long to award postsecondary educational support based upon consideration of factors that include but are not limited to the following: Age of the child; the child’s needs; the expectations of the parties for their children when the parents were together; the child’s prospects, desires, aptitudes, abilities or disabilities; the nature of the postsecondary education sought; and the parents’ level of education, standard of living, and current and future resources. Also to be considered are the amount and type of support that the child would have been afforded if the parents had stayed together.5

These standards are automatically applicable to all post-secondary support orders, even if not specifically listed in the order.6 However, under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), if an issuing state cannot require parents to pay for post-secondary support, then the Washington court lacks authority to require the parents to pay for it.7 Less than half of states allow courts to require a parent (single, divorced or in process of divorce) to pay for the post-secondary costs of their child.

Limitations on
Establishment of Obligation

There are some limitations on when post-secondary support can be ordered:

The child must enroll in an accredited academic or vocational school, must be actively pursuing a course of study commensurate with the child’s vocational goals, and must be in good academic standing as defined by the institution. The court-ordered postsecondary educational support shall be automatically suspended during the period or periods the child fails to comply with these conditions.... The court shall not order the payment of postsecondary educational expenses beyond the child’s twenty-third birthday, except for exceptional circumstances, such as mental, physical, or emotional disabilities.8

Since it is undisputed that a college can be beneficial, it is very common for Washington courts to award post-
secondary support if the parents can afford it and the child can obtain admission to an institute of higher learning.

In filing a child support order for post-secondary costs, the parties are required to attach worksheets for the court to review and sign.9 The court is to use the percentages of income on the current child support worksheets to apportion each parent’s share of total cost, unless specific findings of fact are entered as to why the income percentages are not used.10 In a family with two children, if post-secondary costs are awarded for an older child, then the court is to use the two-child column on child support worksheets for calculating child support for the younger child.11

The Court of Appeals has held that post-secondary costs can be awarded as long as the request is made before child support payments terminate if post-secondary support was included in the order of child support, but the amount was not specified. If the child support payments continue through graduation from high school, then this means requesting post-secondary support before age 18 or before graduation from high school.

If post-secondary support was not required in the original order of child support, then a petition to modify child support to include a request for post-secondary support must be filed before the child turns 18.12 A cautious attorney should always file and serve the petition before the child’s 18th birthday to be safe.13 Filing the petition to include post-secondary support has been enough even when child support worksheets were not filed.14

The court is to consider the needs of a younger child before setting post-
secondary costs for an older child, and the younger child’s needs have priority over post-secondary support.15 Plus, it is an abuse of discretion for the court to order payment of post-secondary costs if a parent cannot afford to pay.


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