Divorced Parents and College Expenses: Who is Obligated to Help Pay?

Until recent years, the South Carolina Supreme Court’s position was that it was unconstitutional for a court of this state to require a divorced parent to pay for a child’s college expenses. The involved parties could always agree to such a condition as a term of an agreement, but, the courts could not order it.

Since its ruling in the 2012 case of McLeod v. Starnes, however, the South Carolina Supreme Court reinstated the leading college expenses case of Risinger v. Risinger, so its ruling and subsequent case law are alive and well once again.

In South Carolina, a Family Court has jurisdiction to order a divorced parent to pay college expenses.

As with most issues involved in family law cases, the issue of college expenses does not offer an easy roadmap to one posing the question, “my child is graduating from high school, how do I get help with college expenses?”

In determining whether to order a parent to pay college expenses, a Family Court Judge considers, among other considerations, the four-prong test set forth in Risinger:

  1. The characteristics of the child indicate that he or she will benefit from college;
  2. The child demonstrates the ability to do well, or at least make satisfactory grades;
  3. The child cannot otherwise go to school; and
  4. The parent has the financial ability to help to pay for such an education.

 

Subsequent case law has expounded upon the four factors and left some questions as to whether the courts weigh some answers more heavily than others. Although it is unclear as to whether a child must seek to minimize college expenses, the Court of Appeals has named the following considerations when looking at the issue: (1) the availability of loans and grants to the student, and (2) the ability of the child to earn income during the school year and on vacation. In contrast, where parties have reached an agreement as to college expenses, unless the agreement places requirements on the child to minimize college expenses, there is no implied duty. See Ellis v. Taylor, 316 S.C. 2425, 449 S.E.2d 487 (1994).

College expenses cases, like most Family Court cases, are fact-specific, and one person’s outcome is not indicative of another’s. In determining whether you should pursue college expenses for your child, take the time to look at all costs involved, including tuition, boarding/housing, extracurricular activities, transportation costs, meal plans, etc. Look into whether your child has attempted to receive grants, scholarships, and/or loans. What are the total out-of-pocket expenses? Have a good grasp on the financial situation and be ready to take action to seek college expenses.

The attorneys at Hyde Law Firm, P.A. practice in the area of family law issues, including cases involving college expenses. Contact our office to see whether we can be of service to you.