Who Pays for University Tuition Fees After Divorce?

There are more than two million students in higher education across the UK. Many of these young adults remain financially dependent on their parents during their degree course, not just for the cost of fees but also for their living expenses. But, if you are divorced, who pays for your child’s higher education? Here we provide answers to your questions… And don’t forget, if you are in need of legal advice for your divorce matter, Wiselaw researches and lists family solicitors from across the UK, from Leeds, to Sheffield, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leicester, Southampton, London, and beyond. Wiselaw has the right family lawyer for your needs.

However, it is a misconception that maintenance for children ends without exception after A-levels have finished. If the non-resident parent is unwilling to continue to assist financially through a voluntary agreement, it is possible to apply to the court for a maintenance order, which can cover the child’s time in higher education (see the section below).

Note that any application will need to be made before the child turns 18. If you have an existing order in place, you’ll need to apply to the court before the terms of that order expire.

Will I have to provide financial support to my child when they are at university?

Under the current Child Maintenance Service rules, any obligation to financially support a child ends upon them reaching 16 years of age, or the age of 20 if they remain in education to the end of their A-levels or equivalent.

So, if a child is at university, they do not qualify for maintenance through the Child Maintenance Service.

However, there is an important exception. 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”, a parent can apply for an order from their spouse for provision to be made in a court order to pay towards university fees.

What this means in practice, is that even if your child is working full-time as well as studying, you may still be expected to support their education.

A court will consider all the various circumstances before making an order for financial support with university fees. However, it is possible for an order to be made.

Can I reach an agreement with my ex regarding support while our child is at university without going to court?

A common ‘end point’ for child maintenance is the age of 18 or the point at which a child finishes their secondary school education (after A-levels). However, even if it is agreed that financial support ends on the ‘later’ event, this still does not cover university education.

When coming to a financial agreement during divorce proceedings, many parents make provision for their child’s university education during these negotiations.

Any agreement made on this basis tends to specify that payments shall end after the first-degree course (meaning that financial support does not extend to a postgraduate degree such as a Masters).

In these types of arrangement, it is typical for any payments to be made directly to the older child rather than to the other parent.

An exception may be when your adult child continues to live at home whilst at university. Here, the parent who has in the past received child maintenance, may continue to receive the payments.

I have an existing financial order. Does this continue to apply when my child is at university?

This depends on the order or arrangements that you have in place.

Maintenance provision for children within a financial arrangement order on divorce is likely to last only until the end of secondary education. It is rare that provision is made for the payment of university tuition fees or financial support while a child is at university.

However, some parents may have agreed a divorce settlement with provisions for child maintenance that provides for university, perhaps with a clause that specifies support continues “to the age of 18 or full-time tertiary education, limited to the first degree, whichever shall be the last to occur”.

When a court makes a financial order when a child is younger, it’s much harder to make provision for higher education as it is not known whether the child will proceed to university.

Many orders will contain a phrase such as “until the child reaches the age of 18 or until the child ceases full-time education, whichever is later.”

The question here is ‘what constitutes full-time education?’  The answer is not simple as, for example, many university courses have fewer than 21 hours a week of structured learning.

If your child is approaching the age of 17 and is thinking about going to university, it is worth checking the wording of any existing order that is in place.

Can I seek a court order to force my ex to support our child at university?

If the court is satisfied that your child has a financial need, and that the non-resident parent has the ability to pay, it can make an order to require a parent to provide support during the time they are at university.

Unlike payments made through a child maintenance agreement, the court can also order a lump-sum payment (where appropriate) as well as regular payments.

Note that the availability of student loans and grants or the possibility of a child working is not an argument against an order being made, although would be taken into consideration, as part of a determination of all the facts of the case.

If an application is made for support before your child reaches the age of 18 it would usually be made by the parent with whom they live. It is often wise for the application for funding to be made at least a year before your child’s 18th birthday to allow for court delays in concluding the application.

A child can also make an application (see section below), although they may be reluctant to bring proceedings against their parent(s).

Can a child make a claim to force a parent to provide financial support?

Yes. Under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989, a child over the age of 18 can make an application for financial support if they are in education as detailed above.  This is a claim that could be made against either or both parents.

A child over the age of 18 may choose the option to bring an application against one or both of their parents through the court. These proceedings are likely to be extremely difficult for all parties and could easily put a strain on inter-family relationships that may last for years.

In the absence of agreement between the parties, the court will need to determine the contributions to be made by each parent, requiring an examination of the finances of the parents to assess what is reasonable for each to contribute.

If you were never married to the other parent, and if an order for child periodical payments is already in force, you cannot apply to extend the term of any order for maintenance after the age of 16. If that situation is relevant to your circumstances then it would be wise to seek an extension of the term of the order before the child reaches the age of 16.

How much will I have to pay?

The amount of financial provision is also a complicated and discretionary area.

Many parents agree the level of financial support between them without the need for court intervention. This is often based on the earnings and financial situation of each parent. For example, if parents have similar financial circumstances, they are likely to agree to share the costs. This can become problematic if the agreement has not previously been enshrined in a court order, as the other party could simply stop paying leaving you to bear all the costs.

The decision of a court will be based on a range of factors. In smaller disputes, a parent may be ordered to contribute to any expenses the child incurs that are not covered by any available student loans.

However, if a wealthy parent refuses to make any financial provision, the court could order them to pay all the child’s education costs, including tuition fees, living expenses and accommodation expenses.

What other sources of funding are available to my child to assist them financially?

There are several sources of financial assistance available to your children if they need support while at university.

Student loans are one of the most popular funding sources and are split into two types:

  • Tuition fee – Full-time UK students can receive a loan of up to £9,250 (for an undergraduate degrees) each year to pay for their tuition fees. This is not means-tested.
  • Maintenance – These loans are designed to help towards living costs. They are means-tested using household income and the amount available also depends on whether the student is studying in London.

Students begin to repay these loans once they start earning above a certain level of income. At the time of writing, this amount is £27,295 in England and Wales and £25,000 in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Above the threshold, your child will pay 9% of their employed, self-employed or rental income.

Any outstanding debt that a student owes after 30 years is written off, even if they haven’t paid anything back during that time (for example, if they weren’t working or were earning below the repayment threshold).

As well as tuition fee and maintenance loans, many universities, colleges, charities and trusts also offer financial assistance. Support can include:

  • A one-off bursary to help with living costs, primarily targeted at students from lower-income families.
  • A scholarship that covers tuition fees in full. These are often aimed at students with high potential, either academically or in an area related to their area of study such as music or sport.
  • A one-off payment from a charity or trust.

You should also think about how much you may want your child to contribute towards their living costs. For example, many students choose to live at home or work part-time while they are studying to help meet their university living costs.

What if my child is taking a gap year?

As we saw above, the court has the power to make an order for your adult child if they are receiving instruction at an educational establishment or undergoing training for a trade, profession or vocation, whether or not he is also, or will be in gainful employment”.

This means there is no provision under the law to order a parent to provide financial support for a gap year unless this funding is agreed by the parents or the gap year is at an educational establishment.

If the gap year is spent doing work that may help their future career, such as an internship at a foreign law firm as a prelude to a career in law, then you may be able to convince the court that this is ‘training for a trade or profession’.

However, travelling through Asia or working in an Australian bar would typically not be sufficient for the court to make an order.

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