12/17/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Forcing Some Parents to Pay College Tuition

The recent Caitlyn Ricci case -- which resulted in a set of divorced parents forced to pay $16,000 for their adult daughter's college tuition at Temple University despite their strained relationship with her -- has drawn significant attention to the post-majority educational support laws that exist in a few states.

These laws seek to provide more than the basic child support required in a divorce or paternity case: they aim to provide college tuition support. The laws differ by state: some take into account the parent's financial capacity and the child's ability (although a college admissions letter may be enough to prove ability), some ignore a parent's role (or lack thereof) in choosing the college, and some provide parents access to the child's college transcripts. Some states have statutes permitting such support, while others have court precedent allowing it.

There are no analogous laws that apply to married parents, who are never forced by the law to pay for any part of their children's college education. But, married parents might pay anyway -- and willingly so. On these grounds, the Supreme Court of Washington upheld a post-majority educational support statute. According to the court, the statute simply remedied the economic disadvantages facing children of divorced parents, who likely would have received greater financial support if their parents had remained married.

In addition to this justification of economic differences between the children of divorced parents and those of married parents, the nonintervention doctrine -- a cornerstone of family law that keeps courts out of ongoing marriages -- facilitates the different treatment of divorced families. It is thought that divorcing couples require intervention to resolve their separation issues, which intact families do not have.

But the continuation of financial support into a child's adulthood remains controversial today, even in states with these statutes such as New Jersey, where the Ricci case arose. As a result of the case, lawmakers now may consider legislating on the issue. While many people recognize the desirability of a college education, this does not lead to the conclusion that such education must be funded by parents.

The controversy surrounding post-majority educational support statutes implicates an important question underlying much of family law: to what are children entitled? Everyone agrees that financial support should be guaranteed during a child's minority from both parents, but what if one parent is particularly wealthy? And, what if the child is no longer a minor? Is there an unequal playing field for children of divorced parents and those of married parents, and if so, should it be leveled by the law? These are some of the issues that lawmakers must resolve in their approaches to post-majority educational support -- not an easy task.