Under Missouri law, parents have the general duty to support their children. Generally, however, that duty does not extend to require parents to facilitate a college education for their children.

Under Missouri law, parents have the general duty to support their children.

Generally, however, that duty does not extend to require parents to facilitate a college education for their children.

That decision, whether and how much to assist their offspring with college, is up to the parents.

The single most significant exception to this rule, however, is found in the dissolution of marriage law, which requires the child support obligation of a parent paying support to continue until age 21, if a child attends college immediately after high school.

Thus, married parents can terminate the support of a child upon graduation from high school, and have no duty to help with college, but a divorced parent must continue to pay child support until the child turns 21, if the child attends college.

And while legislators and policy makers can articulate arguments why this rule makes sense, like so many legislative schemes that can be defended on an intellectual level, the practical effect of this rule often serves to create more havoc than it does solve the social ills it is intended to address.

The result of this scheme is often a court battle between ex spouses as a child graduates from high school.

A common scenario is that a parent who has been receiving a monthly check for a number of years drags the child by the ear down to the local community college to enroll him or her in enough junior college classes so that the checks will continue.

Sometimes, the child has no real inclination to attend college classes, but the parent receiving support undertakes to compel the child so that the checks will continue for another two or three years.

In many cases, that child makes poor grades, drops a class or two or three, and sporadically attends class. And, upon learning this, the parent paying support files a motion to terminate support, based upon the child’s alleged failure to take the requisite class load.

In response, the party receiving support jumps down the throat of the child to keep attending classes, and counters with a motion to increase child support to include the cost of college expenses.

By the time the divorced parents are finished battling, the cost of the whole affair leaves only hard feelings, and no real positive benefit to anyone but the lawyers.

Another common scenario is when a studious child has worked hard all his or her young life to qualify for admission to a quality college or university.

However, the parent who is paying support may not see or care about the benefit of a higher education, may be resistant to an increase in support to help with college expenses, and in fact may have high hopes of a termination of support when the child finishes high school.

This scenario can lead to attempts of the parent paying support to subvert the child’s college ambitions in any way possible, and to the other parent going to court to seek a higher level of support necessary to facilitate the cost of college.

A legal battle such as this can take many months to resolve, and thousands of dollars in legal fees that could better be expended by both parents for the child’s college expenses.

And commonly, in the end, no one really wins, except, once again, the lawyers.

Another scenario is where one or both divorced parents appreciate, see the benefit of, and wish to do what must be done to facilitate the child’s college education.

They do what is necessary financially, either on their own, or with the financial cooperation and assistance of the other parent, without court intervention.

Children with parents like this are fortunate indeed, whether those parents are still married or not.

From my experiences as a lawyer who has seen each of these scenarios, at the end of the day, I think a better rule of law would be to treat married and divorced parents the same, let each parent decide on their level of college assistance, and avoid the legal battle that so often occurs upon high school graduation. In many states, including Kansas, such is the law.  

As such battles can take months, and cost thousands and thousands of dollars. And, more often than not, the financial and psychological cost of the battle exceeds the true economical benefit to be realized by anyone.

Yes, this would permit some parents to abdicate any responsibility for their child’s college education. However, that same thing happens with regularity where parents aren’t divorced, and the law does not step in there.