Under the present law in Pennsylvania, neither parent has any legal obligation to pay for the college education of their children. This means that no court can order someone to pay for tuition, room, board, books or fees. Once a child has graduated from high school or turned 18, whichever comes later, the legal obligation to pay for any of that child’s expenses terminates. The only exception to this rule is when a child is disabled and unable to work and earn a living as a result of that disability. Even if the child is living at home while attending college, there will be no child support paid for that child. For many parents, when they learn that this is the law in Pennsylvania they are both surprised and frustrated. While this may be the law, the parties can agree to contribute to college expenses by way of a written agreement. If they enter into such an agreement, it will be enforced by our courts. In some cases, both parents would rather agree to share in this expense in order to be sure that the other parent will be obligated to do this as well. Where one parent has more income than another, they can agree to share this obligation in a disproportionate fashion based on their respective incomes.
In some situations, even where a parent is willing to commit by contract to pay for college, they do not want to give their children or their spouses a blank check when it comes to this obligation. Agreements often provide that the obligation to pay for college will be limited to the cost charged by Pennsylvania State University for those expenses. Anything above and beyond that, would be purely voluntary on the part of the parent.
We often recommend that parents not agree to pay for college in their marital settlement agreements where they have young children, since no one has a crystal ball as to what they will be able to afford down the road. In addition, where children have become estranged from their parents, possibly due to no fault of the parent they are estranged from, imposing an obligation on that parent to pay for the college education of the child that wants nothing to do with that parent may be something that a parent regrets down the road.
Interestingly, each state is different with regard to college support. Parties living in the state of New Jersey can be forced to pay for college and, in some cases, even pay for graduate school for their children. While this is the case in a minority of states, any party contemplating divorce should educate themselves as to the state of the law in the jurisdiction where the divorce complaint may be filed insofar as this key issue is concerned.