College Expense Orders

This time of year, when the students have returned to the University of Colorado, we often are asked about college expense orders entered as part of child support.  Colorado was one of the few states where the courts entered such orders as part of a Decree of Dissolution of Marriage.  This was viewed as aggressive by many and in the 1980’s Colorado legislature statutorily overruled the line of cases which authorized such rulings.  Today, the Colorado courts do not have authority to enter college expense orders unless both parties agree.  If the parties do agree, however, the courts will enforce the agreement.  While few divorcing couples today negotiate such agreements, when they do, care must be taken to make certain both parties know what they are agreeing to fund.  The cost of college has been increasing dramatically.  Agreeing to pay a percentage of significant but uncertain future college costs can be risky.  The parties should define carefully what is included in the term “college expense.”  Does this include tuition, room and board, books and fees only?  Does it include such costs at an in state public school rate or at only private school?  Does it cover four years, five years or more?  Does it include other expenses?  How is the expense to be divided?  Is the percentage fixed or will it vary depending upon the incomes of each party?  What happens if one party loses his or her job and cannot afford to fund his or her share of expense?  What happens if one party remarries and stops earning an income?

While many divorcing parties want to help fund college expenses for their children, an open-ended and ill-considered college expense order can create financial havoc.  As with any other contract, the potential unintended consequences means that the agreement should be reviewed by legal counsel before signing.