Massachusetts child support law allows for payment of child support until age 23 if the child attends an undergraduate college. Judges can also order parents to pay for the cost of college. This has resulted in onerous orders where parents are ordered to pay significant college costs as the cost of private college has skyrocketed past $50,000.00 or $60,000.00 per year. This does not include the cost of weekly child support payments which usually continued until emancipation of the child.
In Massachusetts, court orders for child support are governed by child support guidelines which are reviewed an re-promulgated every four years. The latest version of the Child Support Guidelines took effect on September 15, 2017 and for the first time address college expenses and child support during college.
In the movie Pirates of the Carribean there exists a “Pirate Code.” The code is described as “more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.” In contrast, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines are more like actual rules than guidelines. It seems rare that judges enter an order that does not strictly follow the guidelines. As a result, the new Guidelines which finally address college should give relief to parents who see the skyrocketing cost of college as a path to financial ruin. The new Child Support Guidelines address both weekly child support and college expenses.
Weekly child support.
According to the Guidelines, child support should continue to be paid while a child is in college and living primarily with a parent. However, child support is reduced for a child in college by twenty percent (20%). The child support guidelines have tables to calculate the amount of child support while incorporating this reduction. The tables address various combinations of children in and at home so a family that has three children can calculate the total amount of weekly child support whether is one, two, or three children in college and younger children still fully dependent on the parents. The result is that the child support payments are decreased even if younger children live with the recipient parent.
When making an order for payment of post-high school education costs, the court has to consider a number of factors including the cost of the post-secondary education, the child’s aptitudes, the child’s living situation, the available resources of the parents and child, and the availability of financial aid. This means that parents can argue that the educational program is not appropriate for the child as well as arguing that the parents lack resources to pay for college. Litigation may focus on high school performance and attendance and grades in the first year or two of college as a measure of a child's aptitude.
The guidelines state that “[n]o parent shall be ordered to pay an amount in excess of fifty percent of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, unless the Court enters written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount.” A judge can still order a parent to pay 100% of college costs at a private college but must make specific findings concerning the parent's ability to pay this amount. Since this is a new concept in Massachusetts Courts there are no cases that help parents understand when they have the ability to pay these increased costs. At this time, it is likely that Judges will focus on parent's net income and net assets rather than on expenses and liabilities. Parties should not be able to manipulate their expenses and liabilities to avoid paying for their children's education. It is easier and simpler for Judge's to assume that parties may be manipulating expenses and liabilities rather than try to understand the necessity of each expense and the history for each liability.
The Guidelines define college costs to limit litigation. College costs are defined as mandatory fees, tuition, and room and board for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, as set out in the “Published Annual College Costs Before Financial Aid” in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst was designated as the benchmark for maximum orders because it was the flagship, and most expensive, Massachusetts state college when these guidelines became effective. Other expenses such as transportation, books, computers, cell phones, clothes, linens, SAT exams, application fees etc. are not addressed by the child support guidelines. It is logical to assume that these should be paid by the parent with whom the child primarily resides.
While the Child Support Guidelines use UMass Amherst as the benchmark for costs, the cost of the school has to be introduced into evidence at trial. The language of the Child Support Guidelines indicate that Judges should accept a printout of the “Published Annual College Costs Before Financial Aid” in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges as evidence or take judicial notice of the information on the web page. A party intending to introduce this as evidence should provide the opposing side with a copy of the information well in advance of the court hearing as the Judge may refuse to consider the information in the absence of notice to the other side.
College expenses and child support for children attending college can be complicated matters. The new child support guidelines finally address these matters but they still allow Judges to deviate from the Guidelines by making written findings. An experienced divorce lawyer should be able to give individuals guidance on how a Judge is likely to apply the guidelines.