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Is my former spouse required to help pay for college?

By Attorney Diana M. Sladen

Massachusetts family law attorney Diana Sladen says divorced parents may have legal recourse if a former spouse refuses to contribute to a child's college education

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Your baby has grown up and is heading off to college and the tuition bill is due. If you are divorced, who is footing the bill? Well, that depends how you addressed higher education expenses in your separation agreement. There are three typical scenarios: you specifically addressed higher education expenses in your separation agreement; you agreed to review your financial circumstances when higher education expenses became relevant; or you did not address higher education expenses in your separation agreement.

In the first scenario, which is the ideal case, you specifically addressed higher education expenses in your separation agreement at the time of your divorce. Perhaps you agreed to split the bill equally between the two of you or maybe you used the rule of three: mom pays one third, dad pays one third and the child pays one third. So now the bill is due and you've paid your share (or maybe the entire amount). You ask your ex-spouse for his or her contribution and he or she refuses to pay. What's your remedy? Go to court immediately and file a complaint for contempt against your ex-spouse. Your separation agreement is a legally binding document, a contract, which you've signed on the dotted line and agreed to perform. Your ex-spouse is legally obligated to contribute to these expenses if he or she previously agreed to contribute. Tuition bills are not utility bills; they are thousands of dollars coming out of your pocket. No one should be skirting this bill when there is a court order in place.

In the second scenario, you agreed in your separation agreement to review higher education expenses when they became relevant. (A better and more binding clause would be to agree to meet with a financial planner regarding college costs once the child reaches the age of 14.) Perhaps at the time of divorce your children were toddlers and college was not on the priority list when trying to negotiate a settlement agreement. Your child's acceptance by a college or university quickly makes it a priority for your family. You've spoken to your ex-spouse and he or she refuses to contribute to higher education or to come up with any mutual agreement. There's nothing in your agreement that obligates him or her to pay because you only agreed to review it at the relevant time. What's your remedy? Go to court immediately and file a complaint for modification against your ex-spouse to have the family court decide. You will need to modify your original separation agreement to include a specific plan for how higher education costs will be split. (Parents receiving child support, beware. Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines were updated last year, giving the court "discretion in ordering support and/or college contribution" for children over age 18. The judge can reduce the amount of child support depending on circumstances, including higher education costs. So if you're bringing your ex-spouse back to court to pay for higher education, be on alert for a request to reduce child support.)

In the worst case scenario, your separation agreement fails to address higher education expenses altogether. Your child is heading off to college, the tuition bill is due and your ex-spouse will not even have a conversation with you about contributing to the costs because there is no legal obligation for him or her to do so. What's your remedy? Go to court immediately and file a complaint for modification against your spouse. But your case is not as clear-cut as the scenarios above. Normally, the reason for filing a complaint for modification is a significant material change in circumstances. However, when a separation agreement does not address higher education expenses, the burden is on you to show more than a significant material change in circumstances to alter the original separation agreement. The burden in this scenario is higher and harder to prove.

For those parents going through a divorce now, be sure higher education expenses are addressed in your separation agreement or you could face an uphill battle getting help with bills for higher education in the future. The best case scenario is specifically addressing how these expenses will be paid in your separation agreement.

If you have further questions regarding higher education expenses or you're looking for help in getting the tuition bill paid, contact an experienced family law attorney.

About Attorney Diana M. Sladen

Diana M. Sladen is a senior attorney with Law Group, P.C. A graduate of Roger Williams University School of Law and Providence College, she is licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. She can be reached by calling 400-500-3159 or by email at .

About Law Group, P.C.

Law Group, P.C., represents clients throughout New England on divorce, family law, criminal defense, bankruptcy, personal injury and other legal matters. The firm includes more than two dozen attorneys, paralegals and other staff, working from 20 offices and client meeting locations throughout the region. PLG corporate headquarters are located at 534 SE St, 855, MA, 01772. For more information, call 844- or visit www.lawgroup.com

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