Parental Responsibility for Children’s College Expenses After a Divorce

Parental obligation to contribute to children’s college expenses in Illinois

In Illinois parents, who are divorced, who are legally separated or who have never married, may be ordered to contribute to their children’s college or professional training expenses after graduation from high school.   By statute, parental contribution to children’s post high school educational expenses is not a mandatory obligation, but is entirely within a court’s discretionary powers. 750 ILCS 5/513(a)(2).  Absent a parental agreement specifically limiting covered educational costs, the statute encompasses any college related expense the court in its discretion deems reasonable.
Statutory limitations on parental contribution
The Illinois statute expressly limits a parent’s responsibility to contribute to the college expenses of the child only through the attainment of a bachelor’s degree.  The statute also requires that both parents have access to the child’s academic transcipts, records, and grade reports at the educational institution, making it mandatory that each parent and the child sign necessary consents for such access.   A failure to execute the required consent can be a basis for the court to modify or terminate a college contribution order.

Statutory guidelines for parental contribution orders
Unlike child support obligations, court orders setting parental contribution to a child’s educational expenses are not subject to statutory guidelines or percentages.
750 ILCS 5/513(b) mandates that the court “consider all relevant factors that appear reasonable and necessary” in establishing each parent’s obligation to contribute to a child’s educational expenses, including the following:

1.    the financial resources of both parents

2.    the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the
marriage not been dissolved

3.    the child’s financial resources

4.    the child’s academic performance

Significantly a parent’s financial resources, for purposes of establishing a college contribution amount, does not simply mean that parent’s income, but has been defined by Illinois courts to mean “all the money or property to which a parent has access”.  As such it may include the parent’s income, property and investment holdings as well as money or property that could be available to that parent through a new spouse.   In re Marriage of Drysch, 314 Ill. App. 3d 640.

Recent developments on enforcement of parental obligations to contribute
Often at the time of a divorce, the parents’ children are not close to college age.
As a result, the parties’ Judgment for Dissoution of Marriage and/or Marital Settlement Agreement will “reserve” the matter of the parents’ respective obligation to contribute until the children are ready to attend college.  Recent court decisions have carved a distinction between divorce decrees, which expressly reserve the entire issue of whether the parents are to contribute to future educational expenses (In Re Marriage of Petersen, 2011 IL 110984), and those, which affirmatively obligate the parents to contribute to such expenses, but defer
a specific allocation to each parent of those expenses (In Re Marriage of Koenig, 2012 IL App (2d) 110503).  This distinction in these cases is subtle, but significant; and provide a cautionary reminder to divorcing parents that college contribution provisions in a divorce decree must be carefully drafted and also that
actions to enforce such provisions should be brought as early as possible.

Recent developments on enforcement of parental obligations to contribute
Often at the time of a divorce, the parents’ children are not close to college age.
As a result, the parties’ Judgment for Dissoution of Marriage and/or Marital Settlement Agreement will “reserve” the matter of the parents’ respective obligation to contribute until the children are ready to attend college. Recent court decisions have carved a distinction between divorce decrees, which expressly reserve the entire issue of whether the parents are to contribute to future educational expenses (In Re Marriage of Petersen, 2011 IL 110984), and those, which affirmatively obligate the parents to contribute to such expenses, but defer
a specific allocation to each parent of those expenses (In Re Marriage of Koenig, 2012 IL App (2d) 110503). This distinction in these cases is subtle, but significant; and provide a cautionary reminder to divorcing parents that college contribution provisions in a divorce decree must be carefully drafted and also that
actions to enforce such provisions should be brought as early as possible.

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