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How separated parents can manage finances concerning their children's higher education

Following the release of A Level results today, thousands of teenagers will be confirming their places at university. For many, the financial implications of continuing in education to study for a degree are a significant concern and play a role in where and what they study and even for some, whether they study at all. It is not unusual for responsibility for providing financial assistance in tertiary education to become a cause for conflict between Separated and Divorced parents.

Whilst for many people, Child Maintenance during mainstream education is straightforward – based on the CSA formula, the situation regarding financial support into further and higher education is not so clear, and therefore a greater cause for dispute.

Child maintenance under the CSA is only payable until a Child finishes full-time secondary education, and does not continue to cover a degree or other further studies. If therefore the parents cannot agree on who will provide what financial support, it is a matter for the court.

Depending on the circumstances of the case, an application for help with tuition costs and living expenses can be made under Schedule 1 of the Children Act or under the Matrimonial Causes Act, usually by way of an application made under the umbrella of the original divorce proceedings. The former also allows the child themselves to make an application against his or her parents, rather than either of the parents making an application on their behalf.

When looking at maintenance and financial support for tertiary education, the court will look at the financial circumstances of both parents, as well as what other forms of financial support are available to the prospective student, before deciding what is a fair and appropriate allocation of the financial burden as between the 2 parents and if applicable, the student. The court can consider all the circumstances of the case, and unlike the very rigid formula of the CSA, uses discretion to arrive at a fair and reasonable solution, which can often fall anywhere on a spectrum of possible outcomes.

Given that any application for maintenance and financial support for tertiary education is limited to a short period of time (namely the duration of the degree) it is particularly important to ensure that any legal costs are kept strictly proportionate to the amounts in dispute, as they can quickly mount up. It is also important that parents and students do their research about the various loans and grants available, and work out what is the most practical solution. A solicitor specialising in family matters will be able to advise parents and/or adult children on the respective merits of any claim for maintenance and the likely parameters of any final solution. This can often be used as a basis for discussions and negotiation or if all else fails, the basis for a court application.

By Family Law Solicitor Cara Nuttall

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