–by Sam Darling, Family Law Attorney
Post-secondary support is Washington’s term for adult-age child support. Often it is money a parent is ordered to pay so his or her young-adult children can attend college. But it can also be for special needs children who remain dependent upon an ex or upon a 3rd party custodian. This article explains the law and norms of post-secondary support for college, the most common type of post-secondary support.
When Usually Requested. In Washington, a petition for post-secondary support is usually filed after the child knows where he or she will be attending college but before the child ages out (turns 18 or graduates from high school).
Usually ‘Reserved’ Until Child Accepted By College. Most child support orders for children under 17 ‘reserve’ post-secondary support. This means the court makes no determination on the issue and can address it later. It is essentially a place holder. The court generally cannot evaluate whether post-secondary support is appropriate until the court knows what school the child will attend and what the child intends to study.
Must Request Before Child Ages Out. A party seeking post-secondary support must petition for it before the child turns 18. If a child support order is in place for the child, it will often contain express language extending the deadline to the child’s high school graduation. Failure to petition by the applicable deadline results in a permanent bar against obtaining post-secondary support for that child. When the issue is ‘reserved’, a follow-up petition still must be filed before the deadline or the claim is lost.
Who Can Request. The adult with primary care of the child is almost always the person who petitions for post-secondary support on the child’s behalf. Conceivably a non-primary care parent could petition as well, but that would be rare and perhaps unprecedented.
Who Pays. Typically only the non-primary care parent is ordered to pay post-secondary support, if any. Courts assume the primary care parent will support the child to the best of his or her ability without being ordered. However, Washington case law specifically allows courts to order both parents to pay post-secondary support. A non-primary care parent who believes the other parent will not support the child can request a bilateral order.
Who Paid To. Generally support for college is paid directly to the academic institution. If the child will be commuting from home to college, a portion of the support might be paid to the parent who the child resides with to offset living expenses. Amounts paid to the other parent to offset living expenses tend to be significantly less than a standard transfer payment (i.e., less than the child support paid for a minor).
Whether Court Will Award. In determining whether to award support for college, judges often focus on three factors. The first factor is a cost benefit calculation: whether it is worthwhile to pay for the child’s chosen college education. The court weighs the obligor parent’s ability to pay and the value of the degree in question. For example, the court is highly unlikely to order a poor father to pay for an expensive private culinary school, knowing culinary school graduates often end up in minimum wage positions. Conversely, the court is highly likely to order a wealthy parent to help pay for an engineering degree from an inexpensive state school, knowing engineering graduates often find high paying jobs.
The second factor is whether the parents would have paid for college had they remained together. The more likely the parents were to have done so, the more likely the court is to order payment. Evidence might include college savings plans, whether the parents went to college, and whether the parents’ parents put them through school.
The third factor is the child’s academic performance. The better the child does in school and on admissions tests, the more likely a judge will award post-secondary support.
Very Little Law on How to Calculate. Washington’s ‘black letter law’ (mainly RCW 26.19.090) provides very little no guidance on calculating the amount of post-secondary support. Informal norms often govern.
How Calculate – Contemporary. Due to case law from the early 2000s, judges tend to factor in each parent’s financial ability using the following rules of thumb:
- The parents are expected to pay 2/3 of the cost of college (the “parental 2/3”). The parental 2/3 is divided between the parents based upon their proportionate incomes (case law requires courts to divide the parent’s portion between the parents based on the percentages listed in line six of the child support worksheet). For example, assume the mother makes $7,000 per month, and the father makes $3,000 per month. The mother has 70% of the former family income and the father has 30%. The mother would be expected to pay 70% of the parental 2/3, and the father would be expected to pay 30% of the parental 2/3.
- Only the non-primary care parent is ordered to pay, though courts have the authority to order payments from both.
- The child is responsible for paying the final 1/3 through loans, side, jobs, etc.
What Expenses Covered. When calculating the total cost of college to be divided between the parents and child, the court a) almost always includes tuition and books, b) often includes room and board, and c) rarely includes discretionary spending, such as money for the movies.
Grants & Scholarships. Judges disagree on the treatment of grants and scholarships, though there seem to be two prevailing schools of thought. The first school believes the total divisible cost of college should be decreased by any “free money” the child receives. Case law supports this position – several cases say money from “third parties” such as grants should be taken “off the top”, reducing the parents’ obligation. The second school treats grants and scholarships as part of the child’s 1/3, since the child usually receives them through the child’s efforts.
Parents’ College Savings. Often the parental 2/3 is decreased by the amount the parents set aside in college savings programs, though judges disagree on this.