The topic of college expenses has been a hot one in the South Carolina Family Courts over the past decade. The short answer is yes, you can be required to contribute to college expenses, BUT this issue is at the sole discretion of the Family Court judge and they will ultimately decide whether or not to even consider the issue of college expenses.

In 2010, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that parents could not be forced to contribute to college expenses (Webb v. Sowell, 387 S.C. 328, 692 S.E.2d 543 (2010)). However, this ruling was overturned shortly thereafter in 2012, when the Supreme Court issued a subsequent ruling, which authorized South Carolina Family Court judges to require unmarried or divorced parents to contribute to college expenses (McLeod v. Starnes, 396 S.C. 647, 723 S.E.2d 198 (2012)).

The 2012 ruling in McLeod referenced older case law from the 1970s (Risinger v. Risinger, 273 S.C. 36, 253 S.E.2d 652 (1979)) and asserted that case law was the appropriate test in determining whether or not a parent should be required to contribute to college expenses. The Risinger case set forth a four-prong test to be used in making that determination.

  1. The characteristics of the child indicate that he or she will benefit from college; and, 
  2. The child demonstrates the ability to do well, or at least make satisfactory grades; and, 
  3. The child cannot otherwise go to college; and,
  4. The parent has the financial ability to pay for such an education.

The Family Court judge will apply these four factors when determining whether one or both, of the parents, should be required to contribute to college expenses. It is important to note that the South Carolina Supreme Court notes a fifth factor in the McLeod opinion – that only parents who would have otherwise paid for their children’s college expenses, but for the divorce, should be required to pay for college. This fifth factor was not included in the four-prong test, so it is unclear whether or not Family Court judges will consider that factor when making a decision.

While the Family Court has jurisdiction over the issue of college expenses, the parties may also agree to terms regarding payment of college expenses. However, a clear agreement regarding college expenses will be binding without regard to the parent’s financial ability or the child’s ability to minimize the expenses (Ellis v. Taylor, 316 S.C. 245, 247, 449 S.E.2d 487, 488 (1994)). So, if you enter into a voluntary agreement to be responsible for college expenses, that agreement is likely binding and cannot be voided.

Have questions about contributing to college expenses? Give Bleecker Family Law a call today!