In a divorce, the Minnesota courts cannot impose on a parent the obligation to pay for college. This is because Minnesota family law does not govern children who have reached majority. The family court will not interfere with the application of existing college funds to tuition expenses, and cannot interfere with the provisions of an UTMA (Uniform Transfers to Minors Act) account or 529 Plan. The family court will also enforce an agreement between parents to contribute to college expenses, but only an agreement that both parties enter into voluntarily. The family court cannot order a parent to do so against his or her will.
The result of this situation is that many young adults of college age receive less help for college as a result of their parents’ divorce compared to their peers. In some cases, the conflict between the parents results in a bitter parent’s withdrawal (or both parents’ withdrawal) of support for a child’s higher education. More commonly, the economic realities (and struggles) of the parents’ divorce renders both parents much less able to contribute to college expenses.
There are times when the spouse with the greater income owes the duty of paying alimony or spousal maintenance to the other spouse, but would – if given the right – make a higher priority of a child’s college expenses than the other spouse’s living expenses. The family court cannot allow the needs of a child who is no longer a minor to come before the needs of a spouse unless the child is disabled or otherwise in special need.
For families with college-age children, or children nearing college age, the need for a strong financial plan and the consequences of a high-conflict divorce are important considerations when the parents’ marriage is dissolved.