Divorced Parents Paying for College in South Carolina

divorcing parents and college tuition

Over the last decade, the South Carolina Supreme Court has changed course several times regarding its rulings on the obligation of parents to pay college tuition for their children after a divorce. Initially, the Court ruled that it could be required.  That was reversed in Webb v. Sowell (2010), the Court ruling that compelling parents to pay college tuition for adult children only when they were legally separated, divorced, or unmarried was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment has been broadly interpreted to mean that you cannot apply the same law to two different groups of people in different ways. And since there is no law that requires parents who are married to each other to pay for their children’s college tuition, the court ruled that you cannot treat divorced parents differently.

However, two years later, the Court reversed course and reinstated the authority of the family courts to require divorced parents to pay for college tuition. In McLeod v. Starnes (2012), the court reasoned that, although not all married couples paid for their children’s college tuition, that fact “does not detract from the State’s interest in having college-educated citizens and attempting to alleviate the potential disadvantages placed upon children of divorced parents.”

In other words, the court found that because divorcing parents are less likely to voluntarily pay for their children’s college tuition, the idea of compelling a divorced parent to pay college tuition does not violate the Equal Protection Clause, especially since it is in the state’s best interests to encourage children of divorced or unmarried parents to go to college.

When are Divorced Parents Required to Pay College Tuition for their Children?

Though the family courts now have the authority to impose a college tuition responsibility, whether or not they are likely to do so in a given case is a whole other matter. As with many family law matters, this issue can become very complicated, and the decision of the court depends largely on specific factors in the case.

There are a number of factors a court may look at in deciding if a divorced parent should pay for college. These may include:

  • The Characteristics of the Child: The court will look at the child’s characteristics and whether or not he/she is likely to benefit from going to college.
  • The Child’s Track Record: The court will also examine the child’s academic career, particularly their grades, in high school. If the child excels or at least makes satisfactory grades in high school, they demonstrate the ability to do well and are more likely to succeed in college.
  • The Child’s Ability to Go to School Otherwise: The child’s ability to pay for college without their parents’ help is another critical factor. In fact, courts often impose a responsibility on rising college students seeking support to first exhaust their ability to gain financial support elsewhere, like through applying for scholarships, grants, student loans, and working during the school year and on summer breaks.
  • The Parent’s Financial Ability: Finally, the court will analyze the financial situation of the parent being asked to pay college expenses (which is almost always the noncustodial parent). This type of requirement should not place an undue hardship on either parent.
  • The Child’s Career Plans: Another area that must be looked at is the concreteness of the child’s plans. Has the child selected and been accepted into the college they plan to attend?  Have all alternative financial resources (i.e. scholarships, grants, and loans) already been applied for and/or secured?  Does the child know specifically how much more money he/she will need to be able to enroll in school?  These factors are why the timing of a college support action is so important.

Speak with a Knowledgeable South Carolina Child Support Attorney

College tuition is one of those gray areas during a divorce in which is very difficult to predict how a court will rule. Whenever possible, it is best for parents to come to an agreement on their own regarding this issue, so the courts do not have to get involved. If the dispute does end up in court, however, the outcome will often depend heavily on the strength of the arguments made by each side. This is why it is essential for those involved with these types of cases to have experienced legal counsel in their corner skillfully advocating for their rights and interests.

At The Cate Law Firm, we have extensive experience with complex family law issues such as divorced parents being required to pay for college tuition. We have an in-depth understanding of these issues, and we stay on top of all the latest changes in South Carolina law, and how the changes in the law impact court rulings. If you need help with any type of family legal matter, call our Spartanburg office today at 864-585-4226 for an initial consultation. Or you may send us a private and confidential message through our online contact form.

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