I often speak with folks who represented themselves in their divorce or paternity action and are now, years later, finding out that the agreement they made to share the cost of college is not enforceable by the courts. Of course, they only come to see me when the child is in college and the other parent refuses to contribute their agreed share. Because the court cannot go back in time and fix the error, significant sums can be lost.
Under Missouri law, an agreement between the parents to each pay one half of college or even to pay one half of “any state supported college or university” is considered to be too vague, indefinite and uncertain to be enforced by the court.
More than thirty years ago, the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri (where St. Louis is located), set forth model language for the obligation to pay for post-secondary education:
Each party (or just Mother or just Father) shall pay one-half (or one-third or whatever proportion the parties agree on) of the cost for each child to attend a post-secondary educational institution (including college, university, vocational/technical school), public or private, subject to the following:
- “Cost” will include tuition, necessary fees and books and dormitory costs for room and board. “Dormitory costs” do not include room and board while the child is residing with either parent.
- The “one-half” (or such other proportion as the parents may agree to) will be the actual cost that the child has to pay, meaning that the cost will be after any scholarships or other aid that does not have to be repaid. Loans are not considered as aid.
- In order to trigger this obligation, the child must carry the minimum number of hours required by the institution attended to be considered a full-time student.
- The maximum cost to be paid, no matter where the child attends school, will be the cost that year for the enumerated items at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
- The maximum number of semesters to be covered by this obligation is eight (8).
This formula is just a suggested format and these variables may be changed:
- The proportion of cost to be paid (in St. Louis County, if the judge feels that the family economics do not support imposition of a college order, none will be made and in most cases the order is that each parent pay 1/3 of college, with the expectation that the child pay 1/3 of the cost as well.
- Specifically addressing the logistics of a child living off campus (who will co-sign the lease, etc.)
- Naming a different ceiling institution than Mizzou
- Agreeing that the child may take less hours
- Agreeing to pay for more or less than 8 semesters
- Addressing the additional costs for study abroad
- Allowing for the child to take a gap year or two between high school and post-secondary education
The fundamental purpose of these requirements is so the court and the obligor can determine with specificity what needs to be paid. As such any agreements between the parents to vary from the court order need to be very specific, in writing, and signed by both parties.