Child Support Series: College

In Massachusetts, the Commonwealth's child support guidelines are reviewed and revised every four years, at which time the child support task force examines issues with child support calculations, amendments in the percentages of payments by parties, and extraordinary situations that may affect the payment of child support. In evaluating the most recent changes, effective September 15, 2017, we are presenting a five part series of articles outlining the most significant changes to the guidelines.

Part I: College

One of the most noteworthy changes to the new child support guidelines relates to the payment for a child's college, as well as child support calculation for post-high school children. The legislature has determined that parents must provide support for their unemancipated children, which includes children over the age of 18 having graduated from high school if they are under 21 and principally depend on the recipient, or under the age of 23 and enrolled in a post-secondary educational program. The legislature provided the court with discretion on ordering child support and allocation of college expenses, but in practice there existed broad differences in how the courts used this discretion.

The child support guidelines have made two important changes. First, while the court maintains its discretion as to whether to order child support; however, there now exists a 25% reduction for children over 18 years and graduated from high school, if the court orders support. The child support worksheet now contains separate categories for number of children over and under 18 years old, in order to make these separate calculations.

"By statute, the Court has discretion either to order or to decline to order child support for children age 18 or older. If the Court exercises its discretion to order child support for children age 18 or older, the guidelines formula reduces the amount of child support in accordance with Table B of the guidelines worksheet.

The guidelines go on to provide factors for the court to consider when determining whether or not to issue a child support order, such as "the reason for the child's continued residence with and principal dependence on the recipient, the child's academic circumstances, the child's living situation, the available resources of the parents, and each parent's contribution to the costs of post-secondary education for the child and/or other children of the family" and other relevant factors. In general, a child who remains at home, or nearby, is progressing in school and is supported by the recipient in addition to the college costs, should continue to receive assistance of child support, although at a reduced amount.

The second major change relates to the college costs. In previous versions of the child support guidelines, there was no mention of the payment of college costs, and this issue was left to the court's discretion. The guidelines now state what factors the court must consider before ordering a parent to contribute to college, which includes "the cost of the post-secondary education, the child's aptitudes, the child's living situation, the available resources of the parents and child, and the availability of financial aid," and other relevant factors.

The significant addition is that the guidelines now place a maximum cap on the amount one parent may be ordered to pay, absent an agreement, which would not exceed 50% of the undergraduate, in-state costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, unless the court issues written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount. The task force chose UMASS-Amherst as it is the flagship university in the Commonwealth and most expensive state college. The task force went on to define college costs as "mandatory fees, tuition, and room and board for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, as set out in the "Published Annual College Costs Before Financial Aid" in the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges." The in-state costs for the 2017-2018 school year are approximately $28,000. Therefore, if a child attended an out of state or more expensive school, a parent's financial obligation would be capped at $14,000 per year, unless the court found an ability to pay more.

The new guidelines for college will assist the courts, practitioners and litigants in evaluating their situation and anticipating what will be expected of them financially throughout their child's college years. Although the task force specifically stated that it does not intend for the changes to college costs to apply to children already enrolled, the child support guidelines may apply to fix the child support obligation when a child is enrolled in college.

If you have a child in college, or preparing to enter college, please contact us to evaluate the financial issues related to college and college age child support.