Who pays what when your child goes to university?
The long and stressful wait for crucial exam results is over and another tranche of excited students and proud parents will be shopping for the ‘essentials’ for student living as their child prepares to ‘fly the nest’. Applications for student grants and loans will have been made many months ago and parents may only now be realising the true continuing cost of their bright off spring’s further education. But what if the parents or if one of their parents refuses to provide any or insufficient financial support?
What are the obligations of a parent to a child who has left school?
The Family Law (Scotland ) Act 1985 provides that a parent has an obligation to provide financial support to a child up to the age of 25 if they are “reasonably and appropriately undergoing instruction at an educational establishment (which can include college and university), or training for employment or for a trade profession of vocation.” So children attending university, college and even those undertaking some apprenticeships could raise an action against both or one parent if they fail to meet this obligation.
I’m the child’s step parent, isn’t it just the natural or adopted parents who have to provide support?
No. In some cases step parents may find themselves also obligated under the same rules if they have “accepted the child as a child of the family”.
My child can obtain a student loan or grant so that means I don’t need to support him/her?
It makes no difference to the parent’s ongoing obligation that a child can obtain a loan or grants but this may affect how much financial support a parent has to pay.
How do I calculate how much I should pay?
A court would look at the needs and resources of all the parties. If the child’s income (including student loan, any grant and any income which they could reasonably be expected to earn) is sufficient to meet their reasonable needs then it is unlikely the parents would be ordered to make a payment. However, there is no set formula and each case would be assessed on its own individual circumstances.
What if my child refuses to live at home while they study or train? Why should I have to support the additional cost of their accommodation?
A defence to an action for aliment by a child is that the parent has offered for the child to live at home and be maintained as part of the family. Such a defence would only be successful if it was reasonable for the child to live with the parent taking into account how long the commute would be and the family circumstances. The offer made by the parent would also have to be considered by the Court as reasonable for the child to accept. If the child and parent are estranged, then it is unlikely that the court would consider it reasonable.
I am separated or divorced from my child’s mother/father and they are making unreasonable demands on me. What can I do?
Up to the time a child leaves secondary education separated/divorced parents will be used to the concept of ‘the parent with care’ and ‘the absent parent’, phrases coined by child support legislation to identify which parent should pay child support to the other. Once a child goes to university these phrases no longer apply but often the former ‘parent with care’ may find themselves no longer receiving child benefit and/or child maintenance. This in itself can cause friction between separated parents leaving the former ‘parent with care’ feeling that it is only fair the other parent who should meet the additional financial needs of the child whilst at university. The obligation under the Family law (Scotland) Act 1985 is on both parents but, as seen above, a court would look at the needs and resources of all parties so wouldn’t necessarily order both parents to contribute equally if there was a disparity in their income.
I used to pay maintenance to my ex spouse/partner through the child maintenance service and she says I have to continue to do this as our child is going to live with her while at University. Do I have to do this?
No. Once your child leaves secondary education your obligation to make these payments to your former spouse/partner cease. Your obligation, subject to the needs and resources test, is to make payments to your child. It will then be for your former spouse/partner to decide whether to ask your child to pay ‘board and lodging’ for any period that they live at home with them.
I divorced / separated in England and my child now lives in Scotland. Does this make any difference?
Possibly. Check the terms of any consent order or court order that was made in England. It is not uncommon in England for spouses to reach an agreement about paying child maintenance to their spouse until a child completes tertiary education and for this to be included within a court order.
Thankfully incidences of children running to court to claim money from their parents is not common as most parents will agree and discuss what financial support to provide to their child. It is usually where parents have separated or divorced that disagreements can arise. Sadly even older children can be used to help a separated parent ‘wage war’ against the other by encouraging or coaxing a child to take the other to court for financial support. I have been involved in cases where this has happened.
If you are a child in this situation my advice is don’t let yourself become a pawn in your parents own separation. Work out your budget, what will your reasonable expenditure be and the shortfall between this and your student loan? Taking into account any differences in your parents income what is the fairest way to split the shortfall? Speak to each parent, show them your calculations and listen to their views.
If you are a parent in this situation unable to agree how to share your child’s ongoing financial support with your former or separated spouse or partner, consider attending mediation or using the collaborative process to help you reach an agreement. If the cost of a court action isn’t enough to encourage you to do this then consider how difficult it will be to mend a parent/child relationship once you have been on opposing sides of a court room.