Court Decides Issue of First Impression Regarding Payment of College Expenses

In a recent decision, a Connecticut Superior Court addressed an issue of first impression regarding the payment of college expenses, namely whether the Connecticut Superior Courts have the authority to enter an educational support order for a child that has reached the age of majority when entering a child support order for a minor child.  The parties in this particular case were married in Chile and had two children before obtaining a divorce (also in Chile) in 1991.  The Chilean divorce decree did not contain any provisions regarding child support or the payment of college expenses.

The parties subsequently moved to the United States, and in February 2012, the children’s mother filed a motion requesting that the father pay child support for their minor son and also contribute toward the cost of their older daughter’s college expenses.  When the mother filed the motion, the parties’ son was fourteen and the parties’ daughter was eighteen.

Generally speaking, C.G.S.A. 46b-56c authorizes a court to issue an educational support order requiring a parent to provide support for a child or children to attend for up to a total of four full academic years an institution of higher education or a private occupational school for the purpose of attaining a bachelor’s or other undergraduate degree, or other appropriate vocational instruction.  The statute provides that a court, on motion or petition of a parent, may enter an educational support order at the time of entering: a decree of dissolution, legal separation or annulment; an order for support pendente lite; a support order where parents of a minor child live separately; or a judgment of paternity.  However, the statute also provides that, “On motion or petition of a parent, the court may enter an educational support order at the time of entering an order pursuant to any other provision of the general statutes authorizing the court to make an order of support for a child…” As the Court in this case explained, at any of those points, “[a]n educational support order may be entered with respect to any child who has not attained twenty-three years of age . . .”

In the aforementioned case, the Court held that the provisions of §46b-56c clearly provide that an educational support order may be entered with respect to any child who has not attained twenty-three years of age at the time the court enters an order of support pursuant to any provision of the General Statutes.  According to the Court, nothing in the plain language of §46b-56c requires that the educational support order be issued for the same child for whom the support order is being entered.  Additionally, nothing in the statutory language suggests that the court’s authority to enter an educational support order for a child that has reached the age of majority is limited in cases where a parent’s younger child qualifies for support.

Litigants should be aware of the fact that the foregoing decision is persuasive (as opposed to binding authority) at best, and contains facts that may distinguish the case from their own.  Indeed, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the statutes and case law governing the payment of college expenses, particularly because parties are generally precluded from seeking post judgment orders regarding college expenses unless the court specifically retains jurisdiction over the issue during the final dissolution hearing.

Should you have any questions regarding educational support orders, or divorce matters in general, please feel free to contact Joseph Maya.  He can be reached in the firm’s Westport office at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at JMaya@gmail.com.