This fall millions of 18-year-old students will enroll in colleges and universities across the United States. And while a recent Wall Street Journal
editorial debated the virtues of parents financing their children's post-secondary education, the facts are clear:
parents pay about 50% of the cost of college for their adult children.
states build this hefty expense into the calculation of
child support. Hawaii allows courts to order the support of adult children in college. New Hampshire permits it for extenuating circumstances. But Florida courts consider a parent's obligation to pay a child's college expenses to be a moral one, not a legal one.
Still, even here, the parties to a divorce can create all sorts of contractual obligations between themselves, including an obligation to provide for college tuition. Indeed, many divorcing Florida couples have built this added layer of support into property settlement agreements.
Florida Property Settlements and Adult Education Support
These private agreements—creating obligations beyond that which is provided for by Florida statutes—have been upheld throughout Florida. Once an ex-husband or ex-wife agrees to pay for educational expenses, a court will enforce that agreement like it would any other contract.
One 1992 case examined an agreement that required an ex-husband to pay all "reasonable costs" of his adult son's education. He was held to be solely and completely responsible for any college, postgraduate, or professional training, "notwithstanding the fact that the children attain the age of 18."
In another, more recent case, a property settlement agreement obligated the ex-husband to pay for his adult son's tuition, schoolbooks and supplies, and computer upgrades. This agreement specifically required some expenses—like the payment of health insurance—to be paid only until the relevant child reached the age of 21 or ceased being a full-time student. And other obligations—like the payment of tuition—had no end date.
It should be noted that Florida law does acknowledge one small exception to the general rule that only private agreements will permit child support for college. If the adult child is dependent, due to some mental or physical incapacity, support can be ordered at the court's discretion—provided that incapacity began prior to the child reaching 18.
The Ever-Expanding Role of College Education
The court in the above-mentioned 1992 court case called a college education "a virtual necessity for economic survival in today's society." Surely that statement rings even truer today than it did over two decades ago.
According to a recent College Board study, Florida has experienced remarkable growth in college attendance in the last decade. In fact, we've seen the largest growth (tied with Georgia) for full time enrollment in public universities: a 48% jump from fall 2001 to fall 2011. As a state with one of the highest divorce rates in the country, more and more Florida families are likely facing the prospect of paying for their children's education in the wake of a marital breakdown.
Thus, spouses should make sure that they understand both their rights and obligations under the law and how they can reshape those rights and obligations through private agreements. If you need help with anything throughout divorce proceedings, or have any family law questions contact the attorneys at Hager
& Schwartz, P.A. for an initial consultation.