Parental financial responsibility for postsecondary education in CT

On Behalf of | Mar 27, 2024 | Child Custody

Connecticut parents facing divorce or separation are often united in their commitment that their children experience robust, enriching education in college, university or vocational school. The divorcing parents may be able to negotiate an agreement establishing terms of financial support for their children’s future postsecondary tuition and related expenses.

But for those who cannot reach a meeting of the minds on undergraduate support, state law contains detailed requirements for a judge-created educational support order. See CT Gen. Stat. sec. 46b-56c. Either litigant may file a motion for the court to craft an order.

This is appropriate in any divorce, annulment or separation proceeding or in other family proceedings involving support.

Requirements for an undergraduate educational support order

Knowledgeable legal counsel can provide important advocacy in a divorce when college support is at issue. The statute has specific, detailed requirements that the litigants must meet in court with clear evidence and solid, even novel, legal arguments. The state Supreme Court has not released any cases that deal significantly with this statute, opening the way for new interpretations and applications.

Connecticut courts have also been willing to overlook departures from the statute where the result was harmless or evidence supporting the missed requirement was in the record. See Sander v. Sander, 96 Conn.App. 102 (2006). Our courts have wide discretion to interpret support statutes as they see proper in each individual circumstance.

In a divorce, separation or annulment, if neither parent moves the court for an educational support order during the proceeding, they may not do so later unless the final decree explicitly permits it. The reservation of the right to file a motion in the future could be part of a settlement incorporated into the final divorce order. See Glenn v. Glenn, 133 Conn.App. 397 (2012).

The court must tell parents with an eligible child of this limitation. The judge may accept a parental waiver of this right if the court finds the parent “fully understands the consequences.” A parent may file a written, sworn waiver if it indicates full understanding and certifies there are no pending or current protective orders between the litigants.

Parents must have intended to provide undergraduate financial help

The judge must find that it is more likely than not that the parents would have paid post-high school educational costs if the family had remained intact, but our courts have been willing to overlook failure to make this finding if the error was harmless. In Sander, the court found the failure was harmless or unlikely to influence the result because there was “ample evidence” of the intent to pay educational expenses. For example, the litigants invested in stock during their marriage intending to use the value for their daughter’s college needs and both had proposals at trial for this meeting this expense.

If intention to provide college support is established, the court must consider “all relevant circumstances” in deciding the terms of the support order, including:

  • Parental income, assets and liabilities
  • Child’s financial need
  • Financial aid availability
  • Reasonableness of the educational choice considering the child’s school achievements and available financial resources
  • Child’s “preparation for, aptitude for and commitment to higher education”
  • Information about the school the child would attend, if known

Statutory parameters of order

The law places limits on court-created educational support orders:

  • Support may not exceed four complete academic years.
  • Student must attend an accredited “institution of higher education or a private career school” to obtain a bachelor’s degree or another undergraduate degree, or “other appropriate vocational instruction.”
  • Order ends on the student’s 23rd
  • Parents must engage in the school-choice decision-making process and agree which school their child will attend, or the judge will do it for them. Refusing to participate in the decision process will relieve a parent of their court-ordered obligation. See Buehler v. Buehler, 211 Conn.App. (2022).
  • Child must meet certain conditions or the court will suspend the order of support: Attend school at least half time; stay in good academic standing; make academic records open to each parent.
  • Court-ordered educational support may include tuition, room, board, book, health insurance and other necessary and related expenses, not to exceed the amount billed by The University of Connecticut for state residents in full-time study (unless the litigants agree to pay more.)
  • The order may not apply to graduate school, although the parents could agree to provide support for it.
  • Order may not apply retroactively to already-incurred expenses. See Kleinman v. Chapnick, 131 Conn.App. 812 (2011).

Security for educational support awards

The statute allows the court to order a means of security for the educational support order, using the same discretionary power the judge can exercise to protect other kinds of support. Sander is again instructive, where the court appropriately established an educational trust funded by a future sale of specific marital property, noting the father’s income could decrease. Other examples of security include money in joint accounts, 529 accounts or life insurance on a parent ordered to pay.

Modification of educational support orders

Educational support orders are modifiable according to the same standards available in child support orders. Unless a settlement agreement incorporated into a divorce forbids later modification of the educational support order, the parents may request later modification if there has been a substantial change of circumstances. See Barnard v. Barnard, 214 Conn. 99 (1990).

Bottom line

Educational support orders can be complex and require significant litigation time and effort. A family lawyer can assist a litigant in all aspects of securing or opposing a motion for such a support order.

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