Parent’s Obligation to Pay for College Does Not Justify Child Support Adjustment
Parents who are paying for their children’s college tuition in Pennsylvania may wonder if they are entitled to an adjustment of the support obligation for their minor children who have not yet entered college. The Superior Court recently addressed that issue in an unpublished decision, M.J. v. S.J., No. 747 WDA 2013 (July 16, 2014). The mother of the children in that case was receiving child support from the children’s father. At the same time, she was paying college tuition and expenses for a child who was over 18 years old. She asked the hearing officer, during a support modification hearing, to grant an upward deviation from the child support guidelines, pursuant to Rule 1910.16-5. Her request was denied by the hearing officer and the trial court upon exceptions, so she filed an appeal.
In her appeal, Mother attempted to distinguish her case from Horst v. Horst, 593 A.2d 1299 (Pa. Super. 1991), in which the Superior Court rejected the father’s contention that his payment of tuition for his older child required a downward deviation for support he was paying for his minor child. Mother argued that Horst was a “plurality” decision without binding effect, because only 2 of 3 judges joined in the opinion. She also argued that she was seeking an upward deviation from the guidelines, instead of the downward deviation requested by the father in Horst. The Superior Court rejected both arguments, holding that “a parent’s voluntary payment of college tuition for a child who is not subject to the support order is irrelevant in making an award for support of a minor child.”
Perhaps Mother should appeal to the Supreme Court. Clearly, the courts of our Commonwealth would not want to discourage parents from paying their children’s college expenses if they may do so without incurring a hardship. The support guidelines clearly confer discretion upon the trial court in Rule 1910.16-5. Perhaps college tuition is not a “fixed expense” like a home equity loan, but it is precisely the kind of expense that a court can and should consider when setting child support obligations. If increasing the child support obligation to enable Mother to pay for her son’s college would create a financial hardship upon the Father, then a court should not do it. But it is a stretch of the law to say that a court may not consider a parent’s obligations to college-aged children when doing so would not create a financial hardship. I hope the Rules Committee is reading this blog.