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.