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University fees – the obligations of a parent

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Parents, university fees and child maintenance.

As new terms started recently many students will have thought long and hard about the likely costs of going to university.  In a BBC article a few months ago the average student debt was calculated to be an eye watering £57,000.  Having had a full grant and a job in the university cafeteria it was a less of a worry when I was studying law but now it’s a serious burden that children and parents must think about.

Whilst students can at least access student loans many parents find they are needing to supplement them, if their children are to have any hope of surviving during their time studying.

Many separated parents approach me as a family law solicitor asking if they can make a claim against their ex to contribute towards these costs. And the answer isn’t as straight-forward as you might think.

Under the current Child Maintenance Service rules your obligation to support your child ceases upon them reaching 16 years of age or 20 if they go onto full-time education up to A level or equivalent.

Generally, in cases where separated spouses cannot reach an agreement about finances the court can only approve a child maintenance agreement rather than impose a child maintenance order. If a child is at university they do not qualify for maintenance through the Child Maintenance Service and as a general rule the court will not make an order to support them.

There is an important exception however. If a child is over 18 and ‘receiving instruction at an educational establishment or undergoing training for a trade, profession or vocation, whether or not he is also, or will also be, in gainful employment’ one parent can seek an order from their spouse for provision to be made in a court order to pay towards university fees. In reality, this means your child could be working full-time as well as studying and you could still be expected to support your child’s education. The court still needs to take into consideration the various factors required by law before making an order to pay university fees but it is still worth remembering.

There is another option available to children who may be worried about funding university fees if their parents aren’t prepared to help. A child over 18 years can make an application for financial support if they are in education as detailed above.  This is covered by Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989, there are very similar considerations that the court must take into account but this is a claim that could be made against either or both parents.

The lesson to take away is that if you have a child that is shortly due to attend university, and you are lucky enough to have the funds to support your child, when divorce proceedings begin then you may have to factor in a contribution to your child as well as your spouse.

Ian Giddings
Family Law Solicitor, Coventry

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