Can You Force Your Parents to Pay for Your College Expenses?

Suppose you got accepted to the college of your dreams, say MIT. If you are so poor that MIT gives you a full financial package or you are so rich that the cost is not an issue, then you might throw a party. Everyone else, however, needs to wait for the financial package letter from MIT. The dream depends on the willingness and the ability of the parents to pay.

Suppose your father looks at the bill in shock. Then he takes you for a walk and tells you to forget about MIT and go to the state college, as he can’t pay the requested amount.

If you know for sure that your father has the money, what is the first question that you should ask him? The first question should be: “Are you still married to my mother?” If you are not completely clueless, you ought to know the answer to this question already. The family status of your parents may be the deciding factor in whether or not you can get your father to pay.

If your parents are divorced, your college expenses might be covered by their divorce agreement. In this case, there would be a legal document designating how your parents need to pay. If your father refuses to pay, your mother can use the divorce agreement to threaten your father with a complaint. The threat might be enough. If it is not, the court will probably force the reluctant father to pay according to the divorce agreement. So if your parents are divorced, it might be a good idea for you to scrutinize their divorce agreement.

Even if your parents’ lawyers neglected to include college expenses in the divorce agreement, you might still be able to finance your college education. Your mother, for example, might sue your father for college expenses.

I wonder what happens if the divorce agreement covers your college expenses, but neither parent wants to pay. I’m curious whether or not it is possible for the child to sue the parents based on the agreement he/she is not a party to. If any reader knows the answer, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

If your parents are together, there is no divorce agreement to protect your interests. It seems that legally the situation favors the children of divorced parents. If your parents do not love each other and have stayed in their marriage for your sake, it might be to your financial advantage to persuade them to divorce well before you need to go to college. Do not disregard reminding their lawyers to include college expenses in the agreement.



  1. Felipe Pait:

    I agree that people who do not love each other should split. But in any case it is hard to write a law that forces people to behave decently.

  2. Maria Roginskaya:

    It’s a pity that parents cannot officially disown children any longer. Then before applying to MIT your parents should have disown you, and then you would have got a full financial package if you had been admitted (though probably you were measured at another scale than?).

  3. Anonymous:

    I’d strongly recommend that anyone in this situation consult a lawyer, since things can get complicated. (Even if a divorce agreement covers college expenses, does that mean expenses for a typical college or for the most expensive case? And what counts as typical – the average for the whole country, or for people with a similar level of accomplishment and wealth?)

    Unfortunately, without some relevant agreement, I think there’s no way a child can force a parent to pay for college at all. Attending college isn’t considered a fundamental right.

    It’s a big mess when parents could afford to pay but won’t. The problem is how the college should respond. If they offer substantial financial aid to the student (because he/she can’t pay for it alone), then it creates a huge incentive for parents to refuse to pay. If they don’t offer the aid, then the student can’t attend. In practice, I think most US colleges will investigate whether the student is still financially dependent on the parents. If the student has lived for several years with no support from the parents, then the school will treat the student as independent and not count the parents’ wealth. However, this is a difficult requirement to satisfy.

  4. Craig:

    Thought you would like the math cartoons (mathtoons) I am working on. I am publishing about 25 of these starting today. About half are on the mathtoons tab of my blog. I hope you enjoy. Craig

  5. Andrew MW:

    I have practised as a lawyer in New Zealand. Here, it is possible to sue on a contract to which you are not a party, if you are sufficiently identified as a third party beneficiary.

    It is recognised as an exception to the standard doctrine of “privity of contract” – Wikipedia it for details. Sorry I’m not sure of the position in the US.

    Great blog by the way – I’m a new reader and casual math fan.

  6. TruePath:

    I knew a girl back in college whose parents had some backwards view about women not going to school or something and she eventually persuaded the university to give her full support. However, I went to a small rich school so they could just decide individually.

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