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Private School and College - A Kentucky Family Law Obligation?

A family law question which occasionally gets asked of this office is whether someone can be court-ordered to pay the costs of private education as a part of child support. I also hear queries about whether Kentucky law requires someone to pay college expenses or child support to a parent who has a college student living in their home. My usual answer is that in the absence of a written agreement, payment for private education won't be required unless there are some special educational circumstances involving specific learning difficulties and a professional recommendation advocating attendance at a specific private school.

Under no circumstances (without a written agreement) can a judge order a Kentucky parent to pay college expenses.

I never recommend entering into a written agreement on private education or college expenses for either party.

Of course, in some higher asset divorces (or at least divorces in those families with a more significant set of aggregate resources), some parents will feel honor bound to do so, some from a sense of best interests, but others out of a sense of guilt, obligation or vanity. The problem that arises, and the main reason why I discourage the practice, is that circumstances change. Jobs can be lost, illnesses can arise, continued attendance at the school may be deemed to be a waste of time or counterproductive, the child can lose focus or interest or the relationship between parent and child can break down entirely, leaving a parent in a position where they are forced to pay an obligation that they could have freely declined to do had the family remained intact.

A good example of this recently occurred in New Jersey. A history professor from Rutgers entered into an agreement respecting the payment of obligations after the dissolution of a 26 year marriage, and agreed to pay half the costs of his daughter to go to law school. The daughter grew estranged from her father, entered the working world in 2009, and waited until 2012 to enter law school, settling not on Rutgers (which would have resulted in a steep discount due to his status), but instead on Cornell, where total costs will approach or exceed $250,000.00. The New Jersey appellate courts sided with the daughter, holding him to his agreement. That would not be a position taken by Kentucky courts; we seem to favor parental flexibility and the notion of "parental brake" on the whims of late adolescents who may attempt to settle scores or take advantage using the expense of higher education.