An area frequently overlooked in divorce negotiations is that concerning college expenses. Colorado law in this area has changed numerous times over the years, so you can’t rely on your friend’s advice who went through their divorce ten years ago, as the law was different then. Because the law is rather complex based upon the year of the divorce, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney if you have questions regarding college expenses.
For all divorces after July 1, 1997, child support continues until the child reaches 19, or is emancipated earlier (although there are some exceptions if the child is still in high school and has not yet graduated). Beyond age 19, though, parents are not obligated to pay child support unless the child is mentally or physically disabled such that they cannot care for themselves independently.
Thus, for all child support orders entered after July 1, 1997, the court cannot order a parent to pay for college or post-secondary education expenses. However, there is nothing that prevents a parent from agreeing anyway to pay for college expenses. In this case, as long as the agreement is in writing and signed by the court, the agreement will still be enforceable. Such a voluntary concession can be used as a negotiating point in settling other matters in your case.
If a child support order was entered prior to July 1, 1997, it is proper for a court to order either or both parents to contribute to college expenses if it finds that it is appropriate to do so under the circumstances. However, in such a case the child support obligation should cease if educational expenses are to be paid – there cannot be both an order to pay child support and to pay college expenses. And, the parent’s college expense obligation should not be more than what he or she would have been contributing based upon the child support formula. Additionally, pursuant to this earlier statute, a child could petition the court for an order of payment of postsecondary school expenses.
If you and your spouse have an agreement regarding payment of postsecondary expenses, it’s a good idea to carefully specify the conditions. For example, does the obligation continue until the child has a four year degree, or for four years following high school graduation? What if the child takes a year off? And, is the payment conditional on the child attending a certain school, such as a public university?
Although for new divorces the commitment to pay college expenses is a voluntary agreement, this is a crucial and important area when it comes to your child’s future. A voluntary agreement in this area may help promote settlement in another area of the divorce settlement.