It is becoming increasingly common for adult children over the age of majority to stay dependent longer and take more time to finish their education. This relatively new trend of prolonged education raises questions for parents such as: When does child support end? How much funding for post-secondary-education is reasonable?
Simply put, there is no absolute age cut-off for child support for children of separated or divorced parents. There is also no definitive answer to how long parents are required to support and contribute to the cost of a child's post-secondary education. Nevertheless, courts have established some guiding principles for parents facing these questions.
Parents Who Are Divorced
For parents who are divorced or have applied for divorce, the Divorce Act definition of "child of the marriage" applies. An adult child may continue to be entitled to support if he or she is unable to withdraw from his or her parents' charge or obtain the necessities of life. Courts commonly consider the following factors in determining if an adult child remains entitled to support under the Divorce Act:
- Is the child eligible for student loans or financial assistance?
- Does the child have reasonable career plans?
- Does the child have the ability to contribute to his or her own support through part-time employment?
- What plans did the parents make for the education of the child during the marriage?
- Could the child have reasonably expected one or both of the parents to have continued to provide support if the marriage had not broken down?
- Has the child unilaterally terminated a relationship from the parent from whom support is sought?
Parents Who Were Never Married
The Family Law Act applies to parents who were never married or are separated but not applying for divorce. Under the Family Law Act, the obligation of the parent to support a child extends to children who are the age of majority or over and are enrolled in a full-time program of education. This obligation does not extend to children who are the age of majority or over and have withdrawn from parental control.
Although the Family Law Act states that the child must be enrolled in a "full-time program of education", courts have not always interpreted this requirement to mean full-time attendance at school. If a child is enrolled in a full-time program but is not taking a full course load, surprisingly this may still be considered full-time study. The court will review all the circumstances of the case and determine if the child has used reasonable diligence and shown effort in his or her education.
Amount of Child Support
The Child Support Guidelines provide that for children at or over the age of majority the guideline amounts of child support are applicable unless the court considers that approach "inappropriate". This includes a determination of whether the child has the ability to contribute to his or her own education. The guideline approach is also often considered inappropriate where the child attends post-secondary education away from home and the parents are contributing to the child's tuition, books and living expenses. If the child returns home for the summer, guideline support may be ordered for that limited period of time.
On top of basic child support, the court may also order that parents contribute to the child's post-secondary education expenses such as tuition, books and living expenses. As with other non-education related special expenses, the court will consider each parent's income and the child's contribution, if any, to the expense. RESP payments are generally deemed to be the child's contribution, not a contribution of the parent who saved the RESP, as the funds are held in trust for the child.
Guiding Principles to Take Away
- Generally, an adult child will be supported at least for his or her first level of post-secondary education, whether it is a certificate, diploma or degree, or other licensing/application.
- As the child becomes older and more educated, the courts are less inclined to award support and contribution to post-secondary expenses. If support is continued in these circumstances, the child is more likely to be required to contribute towards the costs of his or her education through employment, scholarships or some other manner.
- If an adult child is pursuing education beyond a first degree, the court will more likely order continued support if there is proof of academic success and evidence of the legitimacy of the child's career plan towards an employment goal.
- If the second degree is not reasonably connected to the first degree, the court will likely terminate child support.
- Courts have acknowledged that a Bachelor's degree, particularly a B.A., often does not lead to self-sufficiency. The self-sufficiency of a child through post-secondary education is not necessarily supported by the Child Support Guidelines.
- If parents are very well educated, the child will likely be supported to a similar level of education as the parents. For example, a doctor will be expected to support a child through medical school.
- There must be consideration of whether the ongoing education is appropriate with regards to the circumstances of the family. This consideration generally requires evidence of factors such as: education to date and academic success, plans for further education and how it will lead to gainful employment, the income and resources of the parents, what would have happened if the parents had not separated and what happened with support of an older sibling, if any.
- Courts do not generally find it appropriate to order that child support payments be made directly to the adult child. This is only ordered in very exceptional circumstances.
Discussing adult child support with a family law lawyer is a very good idea to ensure that your child will be supported through his or her post-secondary endeavours. There are many variables and options to consider.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.