Virginia Weighs Discriminatory Mandate on Divorced Parents

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.