Maryland Weighs Discriminatory College Child Support Mandate

Married parents have no obligation to support their adult children, much less pay for their college education. But many Maryland legislators would like to force divorced parents to pay child support during their offspring’s college years, under a bill known as HB 986, which will be considered by the Maryland House Judiciary Committee on February 23 at 1 p.m.

In 2010, Virginia’s legislature rejected a similar bill to force people to pay child support for adult college students. A number of states have such laws, but legislators in Virginia voted the bill down after receiving a flood of e-mails and phone calls from constituents who opposed the bill. (The Virginia bill was rejected by a legislative committee in the House of Delegates on January 22, 2010, and killed by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee in a 13-to-1 vote on February 1, 2010.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on whether it is constitutional to make divorced parents pay child support for adult children, even though married parents generally have no such obligation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down such a requirement in Curtis v. Kline, 666 A.2d 265 (1995), rightly reasoning that it was irrational discrimination that violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The South Carolina Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in Webb v. Sowell, 692 S.E.2d 543 (2010). But the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld such a requirement. In many states that have such mandates, lawyers have simply failed to challenge them, which is mystifying given lawyers’ duty to zealously represent the interests of their clients.

I and legal writer Walter Olson earlier noted that such laws have unforeseen bad consequences, such as (1) forcing parents to support children who are disrespectful and abusive toward them, and whom they have no parental control over, or — in some states — (2) forcing parents to make payments to their ex-spouse who was once the custodial parent, rather than directly to their child or the child’s college, thus actually reducing the child’s ability to attend college, by reducing the non-custodial parent’s ability to continue to directly pay the child’s college tuition.

The Virginia bill drew negative attention from a variety of journalists and commentators, like the Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s award-winning columnist A. Barton Hinkle, syndicated columnist Amy Alkon, and criminal-justice expert Radley Balko. By contrast, the Maryland bill has received far less scrutiny to date, although it poses the same basic problems as the bill rejected by Virginia’s legislature.

I object to such college child-support mandates partly 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 nonprofit law firm for over six years, I encountered disturbing cases of aging divorced parents forced to pay the college bills of disrespectful, ungrateful offspring with whom they had an acrimonious relationship, even though they could ill-afford to do so — like a father dying of an 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. (The law firm I worked at did not handle family-law cases in state court, and I thus had no choice but to reject these people’s urgent pleas for legal assistance, even when their claims seemed to have merit.)

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, or takes courses that are a waste of the child’s talents.

It is likely that courts will apply this bill (if it becomes law and is not overturned by the courts) to impose support obligations even when doing so is very burdensome and unfair to aging parents. Courts often award support reflexively even when doing so is unjust. For example, courts in neighboring Virginia 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” based on both fault-based and economic factors. Additional examples are described in a commentary you can find here at this link.