Do divorced parents have to contribute to their children’s college tuition and fees? The short answer is usually. 750 ILCS 5/513, entitled “Educational Expenses For A Non-Minor Child” permits courts to order parents to contribute. In most instances, the domestic relations court will order some contribution from each parent. Fortunately, in my experience, most parents want to contribute. The problem is that tuition is expensive and widely variable. It costs dramatically more to go to The University of Chicago than it does The University of Illinois at Chicago. How can a parent plan, much less afford, to contribute?
What Is The Cost Of College?
The cost of attending college is greater than just tuition. It’s also amorphous. We can safely include books, but what about clothing, laptop computers, money for off-campus housing, and so forth?
The Illinois legislature has some guidelines. First, the overarching rule: College tuition and fees will not exceed the tuition and fees for in-state attendance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That’s the financial ceiling under which all of our expenses sit. No matter what, there is a limit to what the court can order (but no limit as to what the parents can voluntarily agree to).
Not to leave anything to chance, the legislature has gone to great lengths to specify what may be considered college expenses. That list is (drumroll):
- Five college applications;
- Two standardized college entrance exams;
- One college entrance exam preparation course;
- Housing expenses (off-campus or on-campus “provided that the housing expenses do not exceed the cost for the same academic year of a double-occupancy student room, with a standard meal plan, in a residence hall operated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign”;
- Medical and dental expenses, as well as medical insurance;
- Reasonable living expenses for the child when school is in and out of session; and
- Books and necessary supplies (can’t forget about those).
If a child is living at home while attending college, each party may be ordered to contribute to that child’s food, utilities, and transportation, in lieu of the listed housing expenses.
That’s a fairly comprehensive list, but the devil is in the details. What is a necessary supply? That’s open to interpretation. Are all dorm rooms of equal cost? Absolutely not. My rule of thumb is: if it’s a reasonable and routine expense, it’s likely included. If it’s extravagant or extraneous, exclude it.
How Are Parents’ Contributions Determined?
Now that we know what we’re paying for, let’s talk about how we’re going to divide it up. Courts can order either parent to contribute from his or her income or property. In many instances, courts will not require a party to liquidate assets to contribute, but they do reserve that power (and may need to use it where a party has substantial assets and little income).
Thankfully, few judges are willing to bankrupt a parent so that their child can pay for school debt-free. Illinois law provides judges a variety of factors to consider when making their determination.
In determining how much each parent will contribute, a domestic relations court will consider:
- The income and resources of each parent (including their household incomes);
- The income and resources of the child;
- The standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the parties stayed married; and
- The child’s academic performance.
How Are Scholarships And Grants Handled?
In my experience, in most instances, scholarships and grants are applied towards the child’s portion of his or her tuition. If the child is not contributing, the grants and scholarships can be taken off the total cost of tuition (prior to dividing it up between the parents) or disproportionately allocated towards one parent. However, a court has broad discretion to allocate the grants and scholarship funds between the parties as it sees it. The court does have the ability to require the parties and the child to complete FAFSA applications.
How Much Will Each Parent Contribute
In practice, I’ve seen courts take one of two approaches: either the parents share the tuition and fees between themselves or the parents and child all contribute.
If the parents are dividing the cost between themselves, courts will often (but not exclusively) take one of two approaches: equal division or pro-rata, based on the parties’ income. Of course, a court always has discretion to divide up the total cost in any way it sees fit.
If the parents and the child are contributing, a court has more options. It can certainly order an equal contribution from each parent and the child, but that’s typically a large burden on the student. What I’ve seen more is that the court will require the child to pay a set percentage of his or her tuition (say 10-20%) and that the remainder will be divided up between the parties.
Confused? Hopefully the chart below helps:
That’s a lot of information to digest, but hopefully it helps. As always, we are happy to talk to you about your case. Contact my office today to see what we can do for your case.