When parents are ordered to pay child support, they may not think about what happens when the children go to college. In Oregon, support continues at the amount ordered, but the money is paid to the child instead of the parent, and continues so long as the child stays in school (up to age 21) and maintains a C average. In Washington, the law is more generous. Parents can be ordered to pay part of tuition, room, and board if the child is dependent on them. A recent case illustrates how the courts may apply this principle.
The parents had two children, and had agreed in a post-divorce modification that they left open the question of college expenses when the children graduated high school, so long as they asked the court to decide before each child graduated. The older child chose to go to Colorado State, and the mother moved for an allocation of college expenses.
When the case reached the Washington Court of Appeals, four major issues were presented. The first was procedural; whether the mother submit all of the necessary documents with her motion. The court ruled she had. The second was whether the mother’s GI Bill benefits, which she had assigned to the older child, should be credited against the mother’s obligations or both parents’. The court interpreted the most recent GI Bill and decided that the mother, as the parent who had been in the Army, was entitled to the benefit.
The third issue was the most important. The trial court had decided that the father was to pay a percentage of tuition, room, and board, and not to limit his obligation to the equivalent expense at the University of Washington. Normally, in Washington, parents are not expected to have to foot the bill beyond in-state public school expense as a part of child support, but exceptions can be made on a case by case basis. This was one of those cases.
Apart from the usual limit to in-state public school tuition, the courts look at several other factors, which generally boil down to what the parents were planning before they split up, what the child was expecting, the extent of special needs, and the available resources. In light of the fact that the combined income of the parents exceeded $12,000 a month, the father didn’t argue that the percentage he was charged was unfair, only that it should have been limited.
The court relied on two major facts in deciding that the trial judge had made the right decision in not limiting the father’s obligation. First, the child wanted to major in a program that Colorado State excels in, so he had a legitimate reason to go there. Second, the family had a history of sending their children to private schools, so an out-of-state college was not significantly different.
Washington law does allow the courts to limit a parent’s obligation to avoid extreme hardship, but requires a probable bankruptcy or sale of the family home. The father hadn’t shown either of those were likely.
The father did get one break from the Court of Appeals. In calculating child support for the other child, the court ruled that a basic support obligation should be calculated for both children instead of separate obligations for each, and half of that would be less than basic obligation for one child.
In general, if you expect a dispute over support for a child in college in Washington, you should collect as much information as you can to discuss the matter with a lawyer. It is very hard to predict what a judge will rule, and the Court of Appeals doesn’t reverse a trial judge very often when presented with similar questions. The more the lawyer has to work with, the better.