Seeing a child wrap up their high school experiences and begin applying for college can be an incredibly proud moment. For divorced parents, this time can also come with some major challenges and unexpected hurdles — namely, determining how they will pay for their student’s continuing educational expenses. For many parents in Illinois, this may include petitioning for college contributions, which involves asking the court to require the other parent to continue providing support for the child’s college payments and related expenses, even though the child is no longer a minor.
Here in the Chicago area and around the country, college is a big deal — and a major financial undertaking. On the national level, college costs have been rising for some time. As CNBC explains, the average tuition at four-year public colleges significantly increased in all 50 states from 2008 to 2018. On average, tuition for these schools increased by 37% during this period, with net costs rising by 24%.
At the same time, college education is becoming more important for a child’s future career prospects, and college attendance is climbing. The resource hub EducationData.org suggests that there were 21.9 million students enrolled in colleges and universities between 2018 and 2019.
Managing all of the costs that come along with higher education can be tricky, particularly for parents who are divorced. Often, parents who get divorced while their child is still young may put off making some major decisions about paying for college — usually because it seems too far off to get a full picture of the potential costs and predict the exact needs and desires of the child. As a result, parents who reserved decisions about college expense obligations when they got divorced may find themselves taking up this important issue as their child gets closer to graduating from high school.
Seeking College Contribution in Illinois
Illinois law allows a parent to seek contribution for college and other relevant educational expenses from the other parent, even after the child has graduated from high school or reached the age of majority. Such a situation is covered by Section 513 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/513), which is available to read in full here.
Generally speaking, the event of a child turning 19 or graduating from high school (whichever comes earlier) counts as a substantial change of circumstances, which can lead to child support orders being modified or terminated. Some child support orders will have language providing for automatic termination or reduction when the child comes of age or graduates from high school; in other cases, the obligor (that is, the person who is responsible for making child support payments) can file a motion with the court to modify the child support order.
Oftentimes, parents will start a case for contribution to college expenses when the child is beginning the college application process or nearing high school graduation. Illinois statutes also make provisions for educational expenses for any period during which the child is still attending high school, even though he or she has attained the age of 19 (this might apply for students who started school late, or who were held back a year, for example). In addition to public and private college, provisions for educational expenses may also apply toward any vocational or professional training the child receives after high school.
So, when can the court order a parent to contribute to the educational expenses for a non-minor child — and what might be included in these obligations? Let’s break down some common points and FAQs on college contributions from Section 513:
What factors does the court evaluate when making decisions about college contribution?
In making awards for educational expenses — or “pursuant to a petition or motion to decrease, modify, or terminate any such award” — the court will consider a number of factors, as reasonable and necessary, including:
- The present and future financial resources of both parties to meet their needs, including, but not limited to, savings for retirement
- The standard of living the child would have enjoyed, had the marriage not been dissolved
- The financial resources of the child, including scholarships and savings accounts
- The child’s academic performance
What counts as an educational expense?
Under Section 513, educational expenses include, but are not limited to:
- College tuition and fees. Educational expenses include the “actual cost” of the child’s post-secondary expenses. To set a cap on expenses, the court will compare the costs against the in-state tuition and fees paid by a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the same academic year.
- On-campus or off-campus housing expenses. As with tuition, this amount is not to exceed the cost for the same academic year of a double-occupancy student room with a standard meal plan, in a residence hall operated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
- The child’s medical expenses, including medical insurance and dental expenses
- Reasonable living expenses during the academic year and periods of recess. If the child is living with one parent and attending school as a non-resident student, this category includes the reasonable cost of food, utilities, and transportation.
- The cost of books and other supplies necessary to attend college.
The court may also require either or both parents to provide funds for the child to pay for the cost of up to five college applications, two standardized entrance exams, and one standardized college entrance exam prep course. Additionally, the court may require both parties and the child to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other financial aid forms.
When do contributions begin and end?
Under Section 513, unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, the establishment of an obligation to pay is retroactive only to the date of filing a petition. In other words, amounts awarded can be used for future expenses, but will not grant retroactive support prior to the date when the petition was filed with the court.
Unless other arrangements are agreed, educational expenses covered by this section “shall be incurred no later than the student’s 23rd birthday, except for good cause shown, but in no event later than the child’s 25th birthday.”
Provisions for educational expenses may be terminated if the child:
- Turns 23 years old
- Fails to maintain a cumulative “C” grade point average (unless there is valid reason, such as an illness)
- Receives a baccalaureate degree
- Gets married
The court can continue to make provisions for the educational expenses of the child, even if they enlist in the armed forces, become incarcerated, or become pregnant.
How are payments made?
Sums may be ordered payable to the child, to the other parent, or to the educational institution, either directly or through a special account or trust created for that purpose. This decision will be made based on the unique factors of the situation, as the court sees fit.
Section 513 also provides for access to the student’s transcripts and records. If educational expenses are ordered payable, each party and the child shall sign any consent necessary for the educational institution to provide a supporting party with access to the child’s academic transcripts, records, and grade reports. Unless the court specifically finds that the child’s safety would be jeopardized, each party is entitled to know the name of the educational institution that the child attends.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the child is not considered a third-party beneficiary to the settlement agreement or judgment. Most notably, this means that the child is not entitled to file a petition for contribution — except in some circumstances where a party who would have the right to file dies or becomes legally disabled.
Finally, it’s important to be aware of 750 ILCS 5/513.5, which covers contributions for a mentally or physically disabled child who is of the age of majority. Under 513.5, the court may award sums of money for the support of the child, which can be paid to one of the parents, to a trust created by the parties for the benefit of the child, or to an irrevocable special needs trust, established by the parties and for the sole benefit of the non-minor child with a disability.
Have Any More Questions About Any Aspect of Illinois Family Law?
Whether contested or uncontested, divorce can be a complex and time-intensive process for everyone involved.
A skilled attorney can help you manage the many aspects that go into handling your contested or uncontested divorce, including issues of property division, maintenance (formerly “spousal support” or “alimony”), and allocation of marital debt. At the same time, an experienced attorney can help you prepare for all child-related matters, such child support, allocation of parental responsibility, and parenting time. This also includes vital post-decree matters, such as re-visiting child support orders or a parenting agreement, determining college contributions, and seeking a change of residence.
If you are interested in learning more about modifying or terminating a child support order or petitioning for college contributions, our experienced, knowledgeable, and compassionate advocates are here to help you get the answers you’ve been looking for.
The Law Offices of J. Jeltes, Ltd. is a team of experienced and compassionate advocates handling legal matters in some of life’s most challenging family transitions. We know that restructuring a family or making a huge life change is a vulnerable time, and we endeavor to remain extremely thoughtful and effective in helping you achieve your goals.
At The Law Offices of J. Jeltes, Ltd., our legal professionals are driven, attentive, and dedicated to achieving the best results possible. We truly understand that every situation is unique, and before hiring our firm our attorneys will provide you with a comprehensive one-on-one consultation to discuss your legal concerns and goals. If you have any more questions about any aspect of divorce or family law in Illinois, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experienced and compassionate advocates to continue the conversation.