Rite of Spring: College Expenses

For most high school seniors, one of the rites of spring has become the application process for college and the attendant need for funding college expenses. Indeed, spring for high school seniors (and their parents) is a season of change and a time of wading through the process of seeking scholarships, grants and loans long after submitting college applications.

Many families are impacted, financially, by this rite. In my practice of handling college expenses cases, I see divorced families, especially, dealing with the question of who is responsible for funding college.

The South Carolina case law governing college expenses has changed – again and again – during my years of practice.

In 1979, the South Carolina Supreme Court allowed family court judges to order unmarried or divorced parents to pay for their child’s college expenses. In the 1979 case of Risinger v. Risinger, the Court established a four-prong test where the family court judge addresses whether the characteristics of the child indicate that he or she will benefit from college; the child demonstrates the ability to do well, or at least make satisfactory grades; the child cannot otherwise go to school; and the parent has the financial ability to help to pay for such an education.

Years later, in the 2010 case of Webb v. Sowell, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed Risinger and held that it was unconstitutional to order an unmarried or divorced parent to pay for college expenses. And, most recently, in the 2012 case of McLeod v. Starnes, the South Carolina Supreme Court reinstated Risinger v. Risinger and its progeny, ruling that, once again, it is constitutional to order an unmarried or divorced parent to pay for college expenses.