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College Finance Obligations for Divorced Parents

Crains Chicago Busienss 2

August 21, 2023
Crain’s Chicago Business
By Molshree Sharma

How divorced parents in Illinois can navigate paying for their kids’ college.

One of the proudest moments of a parent’s life is seeing their child graduate from high school and embark on the exciting journey to college. For divorced and separated parents in Illinois, this also triggers their legal obligations to contribute to their student’s educational expenses. Parents can reach agreements on how much each should pay towards college, however absent an agreement, either parent may petition the court seeking the other parent to contribute to college and related expenses even though the child is no longer of minority age.

Parents can get separated when their child is young and are unable to determine the college expenses or decisions regarding the same at the time. Consequently, this allocation can be reserved until the child gets closer to completing high school.

Section 513 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage act governs each parents’ contribution. Some of the factors that are reviewed in making the determination are:

  • The present and future financial resources of both parties to meet their needs, including, but not limited to, savings for retirement.
  • The standard of living the child would have enjoyed, had the marriage not been dissolved.
  • The financial resources of the child, including scholarships and savings accounts.
  • The child’s academic performance.

College contribution can cover costs associated with test preparation, applications and the like. Timing of the filing is key because retroactive support can only go back to the date of the filing of the petition. This means, a parent can only get contribution back to the date of the filing of the petition seeking contribution even if the child has already attended college prior to that. The total contribution amount is capped at the cost of attending the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

Under Section 513, educational expenses include, but are not limited to:

  • College tuition and fees. Educational expenses include the “actual cost” of the child’s post-secondary expenses.
  • On-campus or off-campus housing expenses (also capped at the costs of attendance at University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign.
  • The child’s medical expenses, including medical insurance and dental expenses.
  • Reasonable living expenses during the academic year and periods of recess. If the child is a resident student or if the child is living with one parent at that parent’s home and attending a post- secondary educational program as a non- resident, the living expenses include an amount that pays for the reasonable cost of the child’s food, utilities, transportation and costs of books and supplies necessary to attend college.

Generally speaking, absent an agreement, college contribution obligations terminate when the child reaches 23 years of age unless there is some good cause shown. However, under no circumstance is either parent required to contribute after the child is 25 years of age. Some other terminating events include failure to maintain a cumulative C average, marriage or receiving a baccalaureate degree. The parents have access to their student’s transcripts and records, so the child is required to sign consent for the same.

Payments can be made to the child, to the other parent or directly to the educational institution. Additionally, the Court may require parents to complete the FAFSA process. Courts will generally utilize the child’s own resources such as scholarships, grants, and any funds set aside for the child. Importantly, Section 513 obligates contribution not just to college but to vocational courses as well. However, also important is that a child is not a third -party beneficiary which means the child may not (with some strict exceptions) file for contribution on their own.

It is important to note that the process of determining each party’s obligation can take several months and requires financial disclosures. It is therefore important to expeditiously begin the process when the child begins their last year of high school. An attorney can file the correct petition, seeking relief in time to cover all costs including test preps and the like. It may also be worth it to attempt to reach an agreement through mediation or the settlement process which only emphasizes the need to ensure that there is enough time to plan and also reduce the stresses involved in getting to the finish line.

Molshree (Molly) Sharma is a partner at Birnbaum Gelfman Sharma & Arnoux, LLC, and has nearly 20 years of experience in family law. Her practice handles complicated family law matters that require high-level financial experience with assets in real estate, investment accounts, and business valuations. In addition to developing successful strategies for complex financial cases, Molly is a preeminent attorney in international custody disputes and has frequently been published in the American Bar Association Journal, among other publications.

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