Who Bears Financial Responsibility for College Expenses?

College expenses can be significant. Since 1980, the inflation-adjusted cost of a four-year college degree has increased by 180%. Several factors are behind this increase. Many colleges now provide expanded services for students well outside the traditional education experience. Politics may come into play as well. Here in Illinois, lawmakers have raised tuition costs at public universities to help fund the state’s pension fund. Private institutions have raised their costs commensurately.

In most states, child support usually ends when a child graduates from high school unless the child is disabled or other extreme circumstances apply. The Prairie State is one of a growing number of jurisdictions that extend the child support obligation through a child’s undergraduate years, at least in most cases. Overall, Illinois law in this area is liberal and somewhat vague.

Because of these vague and broad provisions, an Aurora child support lawyer is an important partner in post-18 child support matters. Usually, a set formula determines under-18 child support obligations. Over-18 obligations are much more subjective and difficult to determine. We all want our children to succeed. But “success” isn’t always built on a traditional four-year college degree. Other considerations include the nature of the institution and the definition of “reasonable” costs.

Pre-College Costs

Various obligations in 750 ILCS 5/513 often begin before a child starts college, and even before a child is admitted into college. These legal and financial obligations include:

  • FAFSA: Both parents must cooperate in filling out the Free Application for Financial Student Aid and submit any required supporting documents. Note that the FAFSA has very specific instructions regarding divorced or separated parents. The parent who has provided more support over the last six months is usually the sponsoring parent.
  • Entrance Exams, Etc.: A judge may order parents to proportionately pay for an SAT or other college examination preparatory course, two standardized tests, and five applications. Prep course cost is often controversial. Some programs cost hundreds of dollars and some are practically free.

A judge may make these orders even if the judge does not order child support to continue through college, as outlined below.

Additionally, these orders make some subsequent decisions a little easier. For example, if Junior does poorly on his SATs and/or other entrance exams, his college enrollment options will be limited. His poor performance could indicate that college is not for Junior at all.

What are College Costs in Illinois?

We mentioned that most Illinois laws in this area are very subjective. The definition of college costs is one of the notable exceptions. According to subsection (d):

  • Tuition and fees are capped at “the amount of in-state tuition and fees paid by a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the same academic year.”
  • Similarly, court-ordered housing expenses cannot 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.”

Both these caps have a “good cause” exception. This part of the statute does not define this phrase. Generally, however, “good cause” means something other than a preference or a convenient choice.

The rest of this section is quite vague. For example, subsection (d)(4)(B) includes “reasonable” transportation expenses. That could mean two or three round-trip bus tickets per semester or a new car along with a gas and maintenance allowance.

Similarly, subsection (d)(5) requires child support for “books and other supplies necessary to attend college.” Does that mean Junior gets new textbooks, the most advanced Macbook, and a roll-top desk, or does Junior get used textbooks, a refurbished laptop, and a table?

Who (or What) Gets the Money?

According to subsection (e), “Sums may be ordered payable to the child, to either party or to the educational institution, directly or through a special account or trust created for that purpose, as the court sees fit.” There is a lot of ground to cover in that sentence.

In terms of tuition and fees, the easiest method is usually for the parents to split the obligation proportionately and each make payments directly to the institution. However, if the obligor has an unpaid child support arrearage or has been the subject of prior child support enforcement actions, such a voluntary division might not be a good idea.

If the judge orders direct tuition and fee payments to a parent, there is some dispute as to whether the obligor must pay their share in advance or reimburse the recipient after they have made payment in full.

These same issues apply if the student lives in off-campus housing. Additionally, despite the aforementioned expense cap, there is some room for debate. Should Junior live alone in an apartment or share a space with one, two, or three roommates?

College Expense Factors

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. This entire discussion is moot unless the judge orders a division of college expenses. Some initial eligibility factors to consider include:

  • Child’s Academic Performance: As mentioned, college is not for everyone. This factor usually includes not only SAT/ACT scores but also high school grade point average and rank in his/her graduating class.
  • Child’s Financial Resources: Most children do not have large savings accounts or other such resources. But most students can work part-time and borrow money. To what extent should children work or borrow? That is an open question.
  • Standard of Living Child Would Have Had if Parents Were Married: Married parents are better able to pool their resources and trim expenses. The postsecondary child support award should account for this difference.
  • Parents’ Financial Resources: Section (j) includes present and future financial resources. It also includes “savings for retirement.” Must an obligor liquidate his/her 401(k) to send Junior to school? Once again, no one really knows.

Emotional considerations could apply as well. Frequently, the child’s parents have both remarried by this point. Therefore, many children don’t feel very close to non-residential parents, and many non-residential parents don’t feel very close to their children.

In most cases, unless the child maintains a C average, the child support obligation ends. The obligation also ends when the child turns 23, or 25 if a judge finds there is good cause.

Reach Out to Our Diligent DuPage County Child Support Lawyers

The child support obligation in Illinois might continue through the college years, but only in some situations. For a free consultation with an experienced Aurora child support lawyer, contact Keller Legal Services today.