COVID-19 and a Parent’s Obligation for College Expenses

court order college expenses

Nearly every industry has been impacted by COVID-19, and higher education is no different. While many students consider taking a “gap year,” transferring to a college closer to home, or taking online classes, it is important for parents and students to consider the financial implications associated with these decisions – some of which may not be evident for years to come.

Taking a Year Off:
Although the traditional advantages of a gap year are unavailable (to travel the world or to work), many students are delaying their pursuit of higher education due to the pandemic. While taking a year off may seem like an obvious choice to some, the ramifications for divorced or separated parents are not as obvious.

Students who elect to take a year off after high school will be 22 or 23 years old when they graduate college, as opposed to 21 or 22 years old. No harm no foul, right? Well, not so fast. Most Family Court orders or divorce settlements which require parents to contribute towards college expenses terminate when the child would have been expected to graduate, or 21 or 22 years old. Therefore, students who elect to take a year off may relieve parents of a court ordered obligation to contribute during the fourth year of college.

In fact, taking a year off from school could jeopardize the entire court-ordered obligation towards college expenses, if your court order or agreement conditions payment on the child being enrolled in college on a full-time continuous basis. If the child takes a year off – even for the pandemic – the child may no longer be considered “continuously” enrolled, and the court order to pay for college may be unenforceable.

Under these circumstances, going back to Court for a modification is not even an option, since the Courts in New York do not have jurisdiction to order child support (for college expenses or otherwise), after a child reaches age twenty-one.

Eliminating Room and Board:
Whether your child is transferring to a college closer to home, taking online classes, or taking a year off, eliminating the room and board expense impacts the financial landscape for many parents. For instance, while they save on room and board expense – which can be paid by a parent plus loan – the non-custodial parent will lose the room and board credit against the child support obligation. Eliminating the room and board credit increases the amount of child support received by the custodial parent, but may eliminate a credit the non-custodial parent was dependent upon to meet financial obligations. Losing the room and board credit could impact a parent’s ability to afford a child support obligation.

What you should do:
As in everything in life: hope for the best, but plan for the worst. It is not enough just to have an informal understanding with the other parent (e.g. your child will take a year off from school and the contribution for college will be extended). While that option is likely the most amicable choice, it will be impossible to enforce later.

Instead, you should contact an attorney about entering into a formal modification agreement. In that written agreement, you should address the extension of contribution towards college expenses, whether child support will be maintained during the extra year of college, and if the requirement to remain enrolled on a “continuous” basis is eliminated.

If you need advice, the attorneys at Petroske Riezenman & Meyers offer a free initial consultation by telephone or video.  Call us at 631-337-1977, email us, or contact us.