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Are college costs part of child support?

Could you be on the hook for your adult child's college tuition and other expenses as part of his or her child support?


California's child support law requires parents to continue paying support to their children past their 18th birthday only if they are:

  • Unmarried
  • Unable to support themselves
  • Still in high school

That obligation ends when a child either graduates high school or attains his or her 19th birthday. However, like most things in the law, there are some exceptions that may take parents unaware. The law specifically states that there is nothing to stop parents from making an agreement to provide support past that time.

In other words, parents are free to make a child support agreement that obligates them to pay for all or part of their child's college education, effectively extending the period of child support for several years.

If your divorce occurred when your child was small, you might want to get out the paperwork and review it -- just to see for certain what you agreed to back then. If you're still in the process of negotiating your divorce and child support agreement, you have time to avoid several major traps.

Before you sign a child support agreement that obligates you to pay for your child's future educational expenses, discuss the situation with your attorney. Even if you are willing to make such an agreement, you should try to anticipate potential problems. For example, consider the following questions:

  • What happens to your agreement if your child takes a "gap" year (or longer) between high school and college? Does your obligation end if your child doesn't go directly to college after high school?
  • Will your support end if your child doesn't graduate from college in four years?
  • Will you have a say on what college your child chooses, considering that private schools are far more expensive than public universities?
  • What exactly will you have to cover? Will you only be obligated to pay tuition or will you have to pay room and board, book costs and other expenses?
  • If your financial situation somehow worsens after you sign the child support agreement, will you be able to modify it?

In other words, don't go into the agreement without a very clear understanding of exactly what you are agreeing to pay when the time comes -- and what happens if you can't afford it.

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