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Child Support and College Expenses: Understanding Your Obligations

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Many parents dream of giving their children a better life than they had. Often times, this includes sending their kids to college and even contributing to college expenses to prevent their children from having student loan debt when they graduate. While this is an admirable goal, paying for college expenses for children is not obligatory under the law and entering an agreement which includes paying for college expenses should be avoided.

What are your obligations?

Both North Carolina and South Carolina require parents to support their children while they are minors. Absent extenuating circumstances, this means until the child turns eighteen or until the child graduates high school, whichever occurs second. Moreover, supporting children under the law means providing them with appropriate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

In order to determine how much each parent should pay to support their children, North Carolina and South Carolina each have their own child support calculators. While the equations may differ slightly, they both take into consideration the following factors: (1) number of children; (2) each party’s gross monthly income; (3) work related childcare; (4) insurance premiums paid on behalf of the child; and (5) number of overnights each parent has with the child. Absent an agreement or extenuating circumstances, a Court that is deciding child support will defer to the Child Support Calculator for their state.

Once the child support calculations have been run, the paying parent will be required to pay the receiving parent on a monthly basis continuously, unless or until, there is a subsequent court order changing the child support obligation. Child support can be paid directly to the other parent or thought the Clerk of Court, and in certain circumstances, it might be required for support to be paid through the Court. Regardless, when making support payments, it is important to note, that the paying parent cannot dictate how the receiving parent spends the child support payment; nor is the receiving parent required to give the other parent an accounting of how they have spent the money.

Lastly, as time moves on it is important to keep in mind that while you are no longer obligated to pay child support for children who have turned 18 or have graduated high school, if you are paying through the Clerk of Court, child support will not automatically end, you will be required to file a motion to terminate the obligation. Likewise, if you have multiple children and one child has turned 18 or graduated high school, you may be entitled to a modification of child support, but this will not happen without the filing of a motion for modification of child support.

What are the hidden costs?

Once it is determined how much monthly support is to be exchanged between the parents each month, there are some additional expenses that need to be considered. Most commonly, these expenses include medical expenses, extracurricular expenses, and educational expenses; but this can vary on a case-by-case basis.

The Child Support Guidelines for both North and South Carolina respectively, state that any out-of-pocket medical expenses not covered by insurance shall be divided between the parents, with the parent receiving child support being responsible for the first $250.00 per child per calendar year, and any additional expenses being divided between the parents on a pro rata basis based on their relative incomes. The child support calculations include what each parent’s pro rata shares will be based on their incomes used in the child support calculator.

On the other hand, the Child Support Guidelines are silent as to this issue of extracurricular and educational expenses. This means that the supporting parent is not required to give additional funds outside of their regular monthly support obligation towards educational or extracurricular expenses, thereby requiring the receiving parent to pay for those expenses solely out of the regular monthly support they receive. Educational and extracurricular expenses include, but are not limited to: registration fees, tuition, school lunch, field trips, uniforms, pictures, etc.

That said, while the Child Support Guidelines only require parents to contribute towards the bare necessities, parents often times agree to pay for additional expenses either because they want to provide more for their children or because the other parent needs additional support to allow the children more opportunities to go to better schools or engage in more activities. Paying for additional expenses can include agreeing to pay a monthly child support amount that is higher than the calculations suggest; to divide school expenses; to divide extracurricular expenses; to buy school clothes or supplies; to buy the child a car; car insurance; contribute to college funds or actual college expenses; and paying other expenses for adult children. Before agreeing to pay for expenses that are not legally required under the law of your state, it is important to discuss with an attorney to see if it makes sense for you and your situation.

Why is it important not to overcommit?

Both North and South Carolina allow for monthly child support obligations to be modified upon a substantial change in circumstances. These circumstances can include but are not limited to: a child reaching the age of majority, substantial increase or decrease in income of either parent, and/or a custody modification. The reason child support is modifiable is to ensure that both parents continue to be able to support the children to the best of their abilities under their respective circumstances which are subject to change overtime. Modification also ensures that the children’s best interest is being preserved. For example, if both parents are thriving in their careers, the children should also benefit. On the other hand, if one parent loses their job or becomes disabled and is unable to pay their existing support obligation, it would not be to the children’s benefit to have one parent destitute or in contempt for failure to pay support.

All that to say, the law is clear on modifications of monthly support but less clear on modifications related to additional and extraordinary expenses. If parents agree to pay for obligations outside of the monthly support, depending on the type of agreement, those additional commitments may not be modifiable at all. For example, if you agree to pay 50% of college tuition and housing for a child who is nineteen years old, this is not covered until the child support laws. Therefore, if you lose your job or become unable to pay these expenses, you could be held in contempt with no available remedies. Contempt sanctions can include paying fines, completing community service, jail time, and paying the other person’s attorney’s fees.

If you have the ability and willingness to pay additional expenses for your children that is great, and you are encouraged to pay for those expenses for so long as you are able. That said, payment of extraordinary expenses such as college—should be completely voluntary and you should avoid signing a contract committing you to those expenses..

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