VA Considers Mandate on Divorced Parents to Pay for College

VA Considers Mandate on Divorced Parents to Pay for College

January 06, 2010
Originally published in Opposing Views

Married parents don’t have any legal obligation to pay for their
adult children’s college education or living expenses. But a bill just
introduced in Virginia’s legislature would require divorced parents to
pay for such expenses.

HB 146
would extend child support beyond age 18 to age 23 when the “child” is
attending college. Right now, child support in Virginia usually ends
soon after the child reaches the age of majority.

The
Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a similar provision mandating
post-majority support as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal
Protection Clause. It reasoned that since married parents do not have
to support their adult children, it was discriminatory to force
divorced parents to do so. See Curtis v. Kline, 666 A.2d 265 (Pa. 1995)
(Courts have apparently split over the constitutionality of such
requirements).

I agree with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s
reasoning, on principle. Married parents in Virginia generally have no
duty to support their college-age children. Thus, neither should
divorced parents.

But I also oppose this requirement based
on my experience as a lawyer. (I should note, by the way, that I am not
divorced, and have no child support obligations).

As an
intake lawyer for a non-profit law firm for over 6 years, I saw cases
of aging divorced parents forced to pay the college bills of ungrateful
offspring with whom they had an acrimonious relationship, even though
they could ill-afford to do so – like a father dying of incurable liver
disease forced to pay his estranged daughter’s graduate school
expenses, under a state law permitting child support to be awarded for
adult children. (We did not handle family-law cases in state court and
I thus had no choice but to reject these people’s pleas for legal
assistance).

Divorced parents, like married parents, should
have the right not to pay for their adult children’s living expenses or
college costs — for example, if the child engages in conduct or a field
of study that is objectionable to the parent. It is an unfortunate
reality that courts are likely to apply this bill, if it is enacted and
not struck down, in a way that results in support obligations that are
inequitable to some aging parents. Virginia courts have sometimes
awarded support even in situations where statutory language would
appear to bar any support. For example, in Calvin v. Calvin, 31 Va.
App. 181 (1999), the Virginia Court of Appeals awarded spousal support,
even though the recipient had engaged in adultery and been “vindictive
and cruel” in the court’s own words, and even though Virginia’s
statutes expressly bar support to adulterous spouses absent a finding
of “manifest injustice” under both economic and fault-based factors.
Additional examples are given here.