Get It Documented
Article by: Leanne M. Miller
Pennsylvania law provides that a parent’s entitlement to receive child support from the other parent ends when the child is 18 years old and has graduated from high school. Support will also end if the child is emancipated—living independently of both parents, in a self‑supporting status. Some exceptions are made for special needs or disabled children.
Some parents enter into agreements regarding the payment of their children’s college tuition and expenses. Often, when such agreements are drafted, they are part of a divorce settlement. Pennsylvania courts have no authority to order any parent to pay for a child’s college expenses, but, if parents enter into an agreement, the courts will enforce the agreement.
Recently, a Pennsylvania mother tried to enforce an oral agreement with her ex‑husband regarding college tuition for their children. She noted that Pennsylvania contract law does recognize oral contracts. She claimed that she and the children’s father had an oral understanding that they would share college expenses.
The court agreed that oral contracts are enforceable in Pennsylvania but declined to extend enforcement to oral college expense contracts made during a marriage. The court noted that the parents’ agreement was the result of many discussions that occurred during their marriage. The court observed that the discussions were based on the expectation by both parties that they would be living together and sharing their incomes. Once their divorce divided them into separate households, with separate housing and other expenses, the court found that neither parent should be held to their earlier understanding about paying for their children’s college expenses.
Get the Details in Writing
Parents who are separated or divorcing can enter into enforceable agreements about their commitment to help their children with college expenses. Such agreements should be written and should be detailed and specific. The parents should discuss and agree upon the location of the potential colleges and the kinds of expenses to be shared—tuition, room and board, books, activities, travel, spending money, and car expenses.
Not all expenses must be shared, but those that are to be shared should be specified. A written agreement to “share college expenses” is too vague—judges resist interpreting contracts broadly and are reluctant to burden a parent with more than what the parent intended to take on. College support agreements should also address what standard of behavior and academic performance is expected of the student, and whether the parents have any voice in where the student will go to college.
Finally, such agreements should address whether one parent’s disability or loss of employment excuses that parent from paying. The more details that are included in such agreements, the more efficiently they can be understood and, if necessary, enforced in court.