Paying for College
Married parents are free to decide whether to contribute to their children's college educational expenses or not. However, in Illinois divorced parents who can't agree on whether to contribute to their children's college educational expenses and leave it up to the court may have no choice.
Is it Mandatory?
Illinois law holds that the court may “set aside sums [from marital property] … as equity may require” to help pay educational expenses for any child of the parties'. Educational expenses are defined as anything from tuition to books to room and board. These sums can be withdrawn, usually in the event of academic failure or criminal wrongdoing, but a parent cannot simply cease to pay because he or she feels like it.
If, in a divorce judgment, the court orders that a parent be responsible for all or part of his or her child's college expenses, it becomes mandatory that he or she does so. This obligation may be modified only upon motion and a showing of a substantial change in circumstances.
Is it Reserved?
One important legal caveat to be aware of is that sometimes the precise language of your divorce judgment can make a difference in just how much, if any, you are required to contribute. Parties to a divorce agreement tend to use one of two phrases: they will either state that they “shall contribute” to college expenses, or that the issue is “reserved.” This is an important distinction, because if an issue is reserved, it means that no action will be taken on that issue until someone files a specific petition to do so. That petition constitutes a modification of the original divorce judgment.
For example, the case of In re Marriage of Petersen (2011), the wife filed a petition seeking college expense payments from her ex-husband. The court ordered the ex-husband to contribute 75% of past, present, and future college expenses for all three of their children. The husband objected because their divorce decree expressly reserved the issue—as such, he argued that he could not be held to owe for college expenses that occurred prior to the wife's filing of the petition, such as his eldest son's tuition, books, room and board. (The eldest son had already completed college.) The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, holding that while the husband should pay 75% of the expenses, he could only be ordered to do so for the expenses incurred after the wife field her motion. If the Petersens' divorce decree had stated that both parents “shall contribute,” they both would have been on the proverbial hook for the eldest's college expenses. However, since it did not, the husband was held not to owe.
Contact an Experienced Attorney
College expenses in this day and age can add up to very large sums, depending on the caliber of the school. If you need assistance determining how much you may be required to contribute, a knowledgeable attorney can help. The skilled Wheaton, Illinois family law attorneys at MKFM Law are available to answer your questions. Please contact our office at 630-665-7300 to schedule an appointment.