College costs have risen drastically during the last decade, and the tuition at a significant number of private colleges and universities is some $40,000 or more per year for room and board. At a time when so many people remain unemployed, and/or have lost their homes to foreclosure, the last thing on their minds is how to pay for college education. This is especially true for divorced parents, who maintain two separate homes. With one parent paying child support, and the other responsible for all the child(ren)'s food, clothing, and shelter expenses, there is little left to contribute. The parent who pays the child support usually feels he/she is paying too much, and the recipient parent feels he/she receives too little.
Separation/Divorce Agreements usually have language regarding obligating each Party and/or allocating for such costs and expenses. The specific language will likely vary, depending on the age of the children at the time of the divorce. Since all issues related to children merge into the judgment of divorce, the issue of payment for college expenses is always modifiable. Often the Agreement does not provide for any explanation regarding the cost and/or choice of school, although there may be provisions within the Agreement that entitles both parents to have the right to participate fully in their children's activities, and have input into educational decisions. There may be language inserted requiring both parents be included in discussions, and decisions, regarding a child's college choice. In the event that does not occur, the uninformed/uninvolved Party may not be required to participate, as long as his/her refusal/disagreement is not unreasonable.
In a 2009 the Appeals Court heard the case of Paula A. Mandel v. Shawn W. Mandel, 74 Mass.App.Ct.348(2009). Some ten years after the divorce, the Parties' daughter enrolled in a private university costing approximately $34,000 per year. The Parties were unable to agree on payment, Shawn refused to pay fifty percent of the cost, as he stated he was not consulted in the college selection process, and was denied access to loans. Paula then filed a Complaint for Contempt. The trial court judge found that Paula and the child selected a school "financially out of reach" for Shawn. Paula appealed, claiming the judge erred in her decision.
The Appeals Court held that in determining whether college expenses are reasonable, courts have appropriately considered all relevant equitable factors, including the financial resources of both parents, the standard of living the child would have enjoyed if the marriage had not been dissolved, the financial resources of the child, the cost of the school, programs offered at the school, child's scholastic aptitude, how the child meets the child's goals, and the benefits the child will receive from attending the school. The Court also felt it was relevant to inquire as to "the extent to which a party unjustifiably may have been excluded from the college decision making process," stating "both parents have the right to participate in and provide input into the selection process." The Court vacated the trial judge's order whereby she ordered him to pay $7,800 as opposed to $17,000, and remanded the case for a determination of what fifty percent of the daughter's reasonablecollege expenses are under the circumstances.
As a result of the Mandel case, many Probate & Family Court judges have adopted the position that each parent, and the child, be responsible for one-third of the cost of room, board, and tuition at that time at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This limits the financial obligation for each parent, and caps the parental obligation for college, for either a public or private institution of higher learning. A student who wants to attend an expensive and/or prestigious college or university, is then on notice that in the absence of substantial scholarships, financial aid, and/or grants, attendance at that school may not be affordable and/or reasonable.