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Are Parents Responsible for Paying for College?

A Parent’s Legal Duty to Provide Child Support

In family law disputes where the parties are the separated or divorced parents of a minor child, the issue of child support is a hotly contested matter. However, a parent’s obligation to pay financial support for their child operates separately from legal disputes concerning the child’s parents’ marital relationship. Instead, the duty to pay child support arises from the legal parent-child relationship.

California family law imposes a legal obligation on all parents to provide their minor children with adequate financial resources, such that the child’s needs regarding food, shelter, healthcare, and education can be satisfied.

When the child’s parents are not divorced or separated—but instead live together as a happy couple—the law presumes that their duty to financially support the child is met through the regular care they provide to them at home.

However, when the child’s parents are separated, California law attempts to secure from both parents a total amount of financial support that is comparable to how much the child would have access to if their parents still lived together.

Generally, a parent’s obligation to financially support their child continues until their child becomes an adult who is capable of independently handling their own financial affairs. As a result, a parent’s duty to pay child support terminates when a child reaches the age of 18.

Extending the Duty to Pay Child Support

Under California law, a parent’s duty to financially support their child does not expand beyond the child’s 18th birthday, unless the parties explicitly agree in a written settlement to the contrary. Therefore, a court cannot apportion child support to cover the child’s college expenses.

The law allows the parties to enter into a private agreement that dictates the nature and extent to which they owe their child financial support after getting a divorce. Under California Family Code § 3587, courts can approve a private agreement between the parties that extends a child support obligation until after the child turns 18. To help bring this kind of agreement into effect, courts may fashion a child support order that is modifiable when the child becomes an adult.

California Family Code § 3910 recognizes another circumstance justifying the extension of a parent’s child support obligation beyond their child’s 18th birthday: “The father and mother have an equal responsibility to maintain, to the extent of their ability, a child of whatever age who is incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means.”

Courts have interpreted the phrase “incapacitated from earning a living” to imply that the child is incapable of becoming financially independent as a result of some mental or physical ailment that prevents them from securing gainful employment through no fault of the child.

For example, an adult-aged child with a developmental disorder would qualify as “incapacitated from earning a living,” while adult children who have the ability to be financially independent, but simply do not have the resources to pay for college, does not.

Just as parents cannot be required to pay for their children’s college after they turn 18, a parent cannot be ordered to pay child support by funding a deferred income plan or qualified tuition plan, even if the parent is a high-income earner.

Reach Out to Moshtael Family Law to Consult A Skilled Family Lawyer

Family law cases can be stressful to experience and challenging to litigate, such as those involving disputes over child support. If you are looking for a skilled attorney to represent you and protect your legal rights in a legal dispute connected to California family law, call Moshtael Family Law for comprehensive legal advice. Our legal team has over two centuries of collective legal experience, which you can count on to secure your interest during legal proceedings.

Contact Moshtael Family Law online to schedule an initial case evaluation exploring your legal rights, or by calling us at (714) 909-2561 today.

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