Note: This is a popular column by Ken Garten from years ago.
Missouri law gives parents a general duty to support their children.
In general, however, this obligation does not extend to parents enabling their children to go to higher education.
It is up to the parents to decide whether and to what extent they support their offspring with their studies.
The most important exception to this rule, however, can be found in the repeal of marriage law, according to which the maintenance obligation of a dependent parent is up to the age of 21.
For example, married parents can end child support after they graduate from high school and are not required to help college, but a divorced parent must continue to pay child support until the child turns 21 when the child goes to college.
And while lawmakers and policymakers can argue why this rule makes sense, like so many pieces of legislation that can be defended on an intellectual level, the practicality of this rule often tends to cause more havoc than the social ills that it does are to solve should address.
The result of this regulation is often a judicial issue between ex-spouses as children with high school diplomas.
A common scenario is that a parent who has received a monthly check for several years pulls the child by the ear to the local community college to enroll them in enough junior college classes for the checks to continue.
Sometimes the child has no real inclination to attend college, but the assisted parent agrees to force the child to continue the exams for another two or three years.
In many cases, this child gets bad grades, drops out a grade or two or three, and goes to class sporadically. And when the parent finds out, they file an application for termination of maintenance, as the child allegedly did not take on the necessary case burden.
In response, the party receiving the assistance jumps down the child’s neck to continue attending class and responds with a motion to increase child support by the cost of college expenses.
When the divorced parents finish the fight, the cost of the whole affair leaves nothing but bitter feelings and no real positive benefit to anyone but the lawyers.
Another common scenario is when a learning-hungry child has worked hard their entire young life to qualify for admission to a quality college or university.
The parent paying the support may not see or be interested in the benefits of college education, may oppose an increase in support for study costs, and may actually have high hopes for end support if the child exits high school.
This scenario can result in the parent paying support trying to undermine the child’s college ambitions in every possible way and the other parent going to court to request the higher support that is needed to to meet the college’s expenses.
A lawsuit like this can take many months and thousands of dollars in legal fees that could be better spent by either parent on the child’s college expenses.
And most of the time, nobody really wins in the end, except once again for the lawyers.
Another scenario is when one or both divorced parents appreciate the benefits and want to do what needs to be done to facilitate the child’s higher education. You do what is financially necessary, either alone or with the financial cooperation and support of the other parent, without court intervention.
Indeed, children with such parents are lucky, whether or not those parents are married.
From my experience as a lawyer experiencing each of these scenarios, I think that at the end of the day, a better rule of law would be to treat married and divorced parents equally, and let each parent decide how much they would like college support. and avoid the litigation that so often arises after graduating from high school. This is the law in many states, including Kansas.
Such battles can last months and cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And for the most part, the financial and psychological costs of struggle outweigh the real economic benefits that can be realized by anyone.
Yes, this would allow some parents to take full responsibility for their child’s higher education. However, the same thing happens regularly when the parents are not divorced and the law does not intervene there.
Ken Garten is an attorney in Blue Springs. Email him at [email protected].