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Should Divorced Parents Be Required to Pay for a Child's Professional Degree?

In Indiana, the Indiana Supreme Court recently ruled “No.”   The issue as to whether or not divorced parents may be obligated to pay the graduate or professional school expenses of their adult children pursuant to the Indiana child support statutes was recently presented to the Indiana Supreme Court.  In the Court’s June 1, 2016 Opinion, it was determined that the term “postsecondary,” as used in the provision permitting an award for postsecondary educational expenses, does not include graduate or professional school expenses.

Indiana courts have always permitted a claim for parents to share in college expenses and indeed, routinely order divorced or never-married parents to share in the costs of an associate’s or bachelors degree.  Typically, those education orders are limited to 4 years and oftentimes even limited in the amount of college expenses – with a ceiling at the costs of an in-state college.   However, until this decision, there was no discussion or authority on who should pay when a child wants to pursue a medical degree, legal degree, or a doctorate in psychology. 

In the case of Allen v. Allen, the Father requested that both parents share in their daughter’s dental school expenses which were estimated to cost approximately $75,000 per year. The parents had savings, retirement monies, and income that could arguably allow them the ability to help contribute financially toward their daughter’s dental career.  However, the Mother objected to contributing additional monies toward her daughter’s graduate degree beyond the four years of undergraduate tuition she had already paid, arguing that there was no statutory authority which required a parent to pay any portion of a child’s graduate school expenses.   

The Supreme Court observed that the current statutory language was unclear, with no real definition of “postsecondary. ” The Court also analyzed other states and found that “Indiana is one of the few states that even has a statute providing for the educational expenses of children once they have reached the age of majority. Most states have no statutes or case law requiring that divorced parents provide for college expenses absent an agreement to do so. Of the states that do allow for payment of college expenses, the majority of those states limit payment of such expenses to a certain age, thus precluding a requirement that a parent pay for graduate or professional school expenses or even a second baccalaureate degree. If postsecondary is interpreted to include all education after high school, including graduate and professional degrees, this position would put Indiana in the minority of the minority on this issue nationwide”.

The Court also noted that “Married parents have no legal obligation to pay for their children’s educational expenses beyond high school, let alone graduate school expenses. Thus, while this Court certainly understands and values the amount of discretion we give our trial judges, particularly in family law matters, we do not believe that it is the court’s province to order a divorced parent to pay for a child’s graduate or professional school under the statutory language as written, without clear instruction and guidance from the Legislature that it intends to confer this significant authority and discretion on the courts. Of course, even though we interpret the statute to exclude graduate and professional school expenses, this does not leave children seeking to have their divorcing or divorced parents assist them with their graduate and professional school expenses without a remedy. Parents are still free to agree to pay all, or a portion of, their children’s graduate or professional school expenses in their settlement agreements.”

The full Opinion is set forth in the attached link http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/06011601shd.pdf.

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