Parents May Agree on Enforceable Orders for Payment of College Expenses


Since 2004, the New Hampshire family courts lacked authority to order a parent to pay for college expenses, with the exception of enforcing orders and agreements made prior to 2004. As it was written then, RSA 461-A:14 (V) provided that “no child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child's college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school.” The New Hampshire Supreme Court later held in Goulart that the family court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to approve an agreement between to parents for the payment of college expenses.

 

Recent changes in the law now allow the family court to approve an agreement that provides for the payment of educational expenses beyond high school by one or both parents. Beginning on October 1, 2013, RSA 461-A:21 provides the family court with jurisdiction to approve and enforce new agreements for payment of college and educational expenses. Specifically:  

Parents may agree to contribute to their child's college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school as part of a stipulated decree, signed by both parents and approved by the court. The agreed-on contribution may be made by one or both parents. The agreement may provide for contributions to an account to save for college, for the use of an asset, or for payment of educational expenses as incurred. Any such agreement shall specify the amount of the contribution, a percentage, or a formula to determine the amount of the contribution.

The new divorce decree court form provides sample language for an agreement in paragraph 4. However, the parenting decree court form has not been updated yet to include similar language, so parties will have to adapt their own if they want to include arrangements for college expenses. Parties must agree on whether the agreement is or is not modifiable based upon a substantial change in circumstances. The court form also requires parties to attend mediation before the court will hear a petition to modify or enforce an agreement on college expenses.  

This change is great news for New Hampshire parents. It allows parents to negotiate agreements based on their mutual shared interest in higher education for their children. Furthermore, parents can rely on their agreement and enforce when necessary. At the same time, parents who cannot agree are on equal footing with married parents and cannot be forced to pay for college for their children. 

Parents may not waive NH statutory provision prohibiting an order requiring payment of adult child's college expenses

On January 30, 2009 the NH Supreme Court released the opinion for In the Matter of Joseph Goulart, Jr. and Marcia Goulart in which the Court held that parents are not free to waive the provisions of the statute that prohibit any child support order requiring a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school. The Court urged the legislature to reexamine the statutory language regarding approval or enforcement of a stipulated parenting plan in order to take into consideration a situation where the divorcing parties are fully informed, represented by counsel and mutually agree that one or both will voluntarily contribute to their adult child’s college expenses.

Joseph and Marcia divorced in 2005 while their son was still a minor. Part of their final divorce decree incorporated a Stipulated Parenting Plan, negotiated with counsel, which included a provision stating:

 

The parties are aware of the statutory provisions prohibiting the Court from ordering any parent to contribute to expenses for an adult child. Despite this prohibition the parties agree that Joseph shall be responsible for payment of the son’s college educational expenses.

 

In 2007, Joseph filed a motion to define his obligation regarding college expenses for the same reasons he cited before. There was a hearing and the family division ruled that Joseph was expected to assist with college expenses as agreed to in the Parenting Plan.

 

Joseph appealed that decision to the NH Supreme Court, contending that the family division has no authority to enforce the college education funding obligation because the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to enter such an order under NH RSA 461-A:14, V. The statute reads: “No child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school.”

 

The Court agreed with Joseph that the statute deprived both the superior court and the family division of subject matter jurisdiction to either approve or enforce a provision in a stipulated parenting plan that requires parents to contribute to their adult child’s college expenses. The family division should have modified the parenting plan by striking the college expense provision.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

 

Donovan: Enforcing orders for contribution to a child's college expenses

On this blog, we review new domestic relations cases that are issued by the New Hampshire Supreme Court such as the recent Lemieux and Gendron and Plaistek opinions. However, there are many older opinions which are worth reviewing periodically. Here, we will review the case In the Matter of Tatjana A. Donovan and Robert F. Donovan which was issued on April 1, 2005.

The major crux of the case deals with a section of the stipulation which required both parties to contribute to their children’s educational expenses through college in an amount proportionate to their respective incomes. Robert asked the trial court to strike this portion of the parties divorce decree in light of the passage of House Bill 299, which provided: "No child support order shall require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s college expenses or other educational expenses beyond the completion of high school." RSA 461-A-14, V. The trial court refused, and Robert appealed the order.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court determined that as general rule statutes apply prospectively rather than retroactively. In other words, orders made prior to February 2, 2004, the day that the new statute became effective, that required a parent to contribute to a child’s college expenses were enforceable. Therefore, although no new orders may require contribution by a parent to a child’s college expenses, orders made prior to February 2, 2004 remain effective.

Blog Credit: Marisa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk

Where to get legal advice: An experienced attorney

I recently did a google search to see what came up for answers for "child support and college in New Hampshire." I came across a yahoo answers page in which somebody asked "do I have to pay child support when my child goes to college if I live in New Hampshire." It is a question that comes up often in family law, and a good question to ask.

However, answers at yahoo is not the place to get legal advice. There were a wide variety of "answers," many of which were completely wrong. One responder said "yeah you do because my sisters dad is going to have to pay for college when she goes" while another stated "you have to pay child support until they are done college. This uasually [sic] is standard. I am pretty sure that you only have to pay for only 4 years of college or university."

Generally, the law in New Hampshire is that child support ends when the child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is later.  Yet, the answer to the question is not that simple. Sometimes, there may be a circumstance which can extend child support, for example if your child is disabled. Additionally, did the person asking the question mean to include college expenses as part of support, a question that depends on several things and that  was briefly reviewed in a prior post on this blog.

The correct answer for the yahoo forum, which a few of the responders did advise, is to call an experienced attorney who knows the law and can apply them to the facts in your case.  Do not seek legal advice from anonymous Internet users or your co-worker who recently went through a divorce. You might just get what you pay for.