Under Rhode Island law, parents are not responsible for paying for college or expenses related to college. There are a few exceptions that as a Rhode Island Divorce Lawyer I've seen Rhode Island Family court judges address.
Generally speaking the statement above is true. Parents are not held responsible for paying for college expenses. This is true, provided that normally accepted situations exist.
For instance, most "children" do not take college courses before their 18th birthday and many, even before their 19th birthday.
Under Rhode Island Law, child support obligations may be required by parents until a child is 18 and has graduated from high school or until the child has reached the age of 19 at the latest, provided the child is not a special needs child. Child Support provides for child care expenses which may or may not, in the discretion of the judge include educational expenses. Consider this example which is not that unusual.
EXAMPLE #1 - Your Child is Advanced
Terri and John have a daughter, Samantha and are divorced. Samantha is exceptionally bright and finished high school at age 17 and was accepted to college early. Terri takes John back to court to have him pay for part of Samantha's college expenses. John hires a Rhode Island general law practitioner who advises him that he is not required to pay for his daughter's college expenses. In the Final Judgment of Divorce John was ordered to pay for half of Samantha's tuition, books and extra-curricular activities until she was no longer eligible for child support.
At the time of the hearing John expects that he will not be ordered to pay anything toward Samantha's college expenses especially since Samantha's private high school tuition was about 1/5th the cost of Samantha's college tuition and he never anticipated Samantha would go to college early.
However, after the hearing the judge sees things otherwise. Since Samantha is still a minor
she is still entitled to child support and the support of her father. Since the court's order didn't specifically exclude college expenses, then the judge finds that they are still included until Samantha is no longer eligible for child support.
EXAMPLE #2 - You Agreed to It
Claire and Tim get divorced and have a Marital Settlement Agreement. Both parties had an attorney and both parties wanted to get the divorce done as quickly as possible so the Marital Settlement Agreement was a little rushed though each party had the opportunity to read all the provisions and discuss it with his or her lawyer.
Claire and Tim have a son, James. James enters college and Claire contributes as much as she can to his college education and approaches Tim about his contribution. Tim is surprised and tells Claire that he can't afford to contribute to college for James because he is just about to close on a new house. Claire consults a lawyer who tells Claire that Tim has to contribute whether he likes it or not because he agreed to it in the Marital Settlement Agreement.
Tim consults an attorney who informs him that it doesn't matter what is in the Marital Settlement Agreement because the family court lacks the legal authority to make a father pay for college costs.
At the hearing Claire's attorney argues that Tim agreed to it in a provision of their Marital Settlement Agreement and Tim's attorney argues that the family court lacks the power to force Tim to pay for college costs and therefore the provision of the Marital Settlement Agreement is not binding.
The judge takes a straightforward and common sense position to the argument. The judge agrees that the family court does not have the power to force a parent to pay for college costs for a child who is not a special needs child and is emancipated. However, the judge finds that according to the Rhode Island Statutes the family court is empowered to enforce agreements made between the parties as a results of divorce and that the terms of such agreements may reach beyond what the family court may order because parties are free to contract to whatever terms they see fit as long as the court does not find them to be inequitable.
Therefore, the judge finds that the Marital Settlement Agreement is enforceable as a separate and binding contract and Orders Tim to pay half of the expenses as he agreed to do in the Marital Settlement Agreement.
Christopher A. Pearsall, Attorney-at-Law
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West Warwick, RI 02893
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