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States differ on ordering divorced parents to pay for college fees

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2003

MANCHESTER, N.H. Alexander Duran was delighted when his daughter earned admission to two of New England's top private colleges. He was furious when a judge ordered him to help pay tuition at the school offering far less financial aid.

A married parent would never be subjected to such an order. But New Hampshire, where both Duran and his ex-wife live, is one of a growing minority of states allowing courts to force divorced parents to pay for their children's college costs.

''It's not so much the money it's having no input in the decision,'' said Duran, 48, whose daughter and ex-wife preferred Brown University despite a better aid offer from Brandeis. Duran said the court order means he must pay more than $6,000 per year for college expenses instead of $3,000.

The issue is generating debate nationwide as lawyers, legislators and parents argue over whether the children of divorce in an era of skyrocketing tuition deserve legal protections different from the children of intact marriages.

Last year, Connecticut through a law passed by the Legislature became the 17th state to allow such court orders, according to family law specialist Laura Morgan of Charlottesville, Va.

This year, due partly to impassioned lobbying by divorced, noncustodial fathers like Duran, New Hampshire lawmakers took a step in the opposite direction. The House of Representatives voted to prohibit courts from ordering a divorced parent to pay college expenses of a child 18 or older; the bill is expected to be considered by the state Senate next year.

''States are all over the place on this issue,'' said Sandra Morris, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. ''In many situations, it's very tragic the divorced parents don't do what they would have done if they had stayed together, and the children are pretty much cut off (from any support).''

Kate Haakonsen, an attorney who helped draft Connecticut's year-old law, said a majority of her state's lawmakers felt it was appropriate to treat divorced parents differently from married couples when it came to college support.

''Children of divorced parents are less likely to go to college, less likely to go to prestigious schools, and generally are less economically successful than their parents,'' she said. ''As a matter of public policy, we have to decide if that's what we want.''

In the states with laws like Connecticut's, courts have repeatedly upheld that rationale. The exception is Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that there is no basis for distinguishing between divorced and non-divorced parents in regard to paying for college.

Jean-Claude Sakellarios, a New Hampshire attorney, believes a former client might still be alive if his state's judges shared the view of Pennsylvania's high court.

The client, Luke Hovland, committed suicide June 3, eight months after spending 43 days in the Strafford County jail for failing to pay more than $16,000 to his ex-wife to cover half of their daughter's tuition at Tufts University.

Hovland a forester-turned-salesman made about $55,000 yearly and had struggled to keep up with child support payments while earning enough for his new wife and young daughter, Sakellarios said. The lawyer said the court-ordered tuition payment deepened the 50-year-old Hovland's despair.

''You get more and more convinced they're going to chase you forever,'' Sakellarios said at his office in Manchester. ''There was a sense of hopelessness.''

While empathizing with Hov-land, Sakellarios said the question of requiring divorced parents to provide college support is complex. He said New Hampshire's current policy would be improved if the courts placed a cap on the mandated payments, so that no parent could be forced to pay more than half of the tuition for in-state students at the University of New Hampshire currently $8,644.

Wil Boc, the lawyer who represented Hovland's ex-wife, contended that Hovland persistently misrepresented his financial situation as worse than it was while resisting child-support payments.

However, Boc said judges handling similar cases should look carefully at individual circumstances and show some understanding for the noncustodial parents.

''Judges need to listen more to how it makes a father feel when a kid says, 'Don't ever call me, I don't want to speak to you, here's my bill for $20,000,''' Boc said. ''It drives people crazy.''

Morgan, the Virginia-based family law expert, urged parents getting a divorce to work out details of college financing at the time of the breakup. That way a court is likely to intervene only to enforce the terms of the divorce agreement.

''You can spell out all kinds of things that the child has to help cover the tuition cost by getting a job, or has to graduate in four years and maintain a good grade average,'' Morgan said.

''But that's hard for some parents to do when the kid's only a toddler, in the middle of all the emotional problems attendant on a divorce.''



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