In North Carolina Family Law, the issue of college expenses and child support
is a hotly debated topic and a frequent cause for dispute between parents.
N.C. State University estimated the total “cost of attendance”,
which includes tuition, books, housing, meals, transportation, and personal
expenses to be $22,954 for in-state residents for the 2014-2015 school
year. When the cost of a typical four year college experience exceeds
$80,000, it is vital for divorced parents to address how this responsibility
is distributed. North Carolina courts do not have the authority via Child
Support or any other statute to order either parent to pay for college
expenses. Child Support most often terminates when a child reaches age
18 or graduates high school, whichever occurs last, and thereafter the
court’s jurisdiction expires. It then makes sense that the court
could not order either parent to pay for college expenses once the child
is no longer under the court’s jurisdiction for financial support.
Although the court does not have authority to direct payment of a child’s
college expense, the parents may voluntarily enter into an agreement on
how those expenses are paid. The North Carolina Court of Appeals has regularly
found that parents may enter into contractual obligations, like those
related to the payment of college expenses, which are greater than what
the law imposes. There are a myriad of different ways the responsibility
of a child’s college expenses can be distributed. Common agreements
include one parent being wholly responsible for the expenses or a sharing
of expenses, either equally or relative to the parent’s incomes.
Qualifiers may also be included, such as a limitation to in-state or public
school costs or requirements on progress towards graduation by the child.
If an agreement is reached on the payment of a child’s college expenses,
it is best practice to document that agreement. The written agreement
may be included in an out of court contract or incorporated into a consent
order which is filed with the court. Either type of document is enforceable
by the court, although with different enforcement mechanisms. So while
the court does not have statutory authority to order payment of college
expenses, the court can order one party to pay those costs if it was included
in a properly-executed contract or consent order. Even though the court
cannot order payment of college costs in Child Support, it is an important
item to address in any Child Support settlement. If you have questions
about how your child’s college may be paid, please call us today
at (704) 810-1400 to schedule a consultation.