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Maintenance for children in higher education

August 23, 2011 Speech Box

The nail-biting wait for A-level results came to an end for thousands of teenagers earlier this month. Whilst many of them are deservedly celebrating gaining a place at university, this time of year can also be filled with worry for parents.

Sending your child to university is a significant financial commitment. The cost of living rises year on year and as well as tuition fees, students need to budget for rent, books and study materials, food, socialising and travel amongst many other things. Some of this may be covered by a student loan that your child repays in the future. However, it is rare that the loan will be enough and parents may be concerned about their child taking on a large debt at age 18 and want to consider other funding options.

If you are a single parent, these worries can be overwhelming if you feel that you are expected to foot your child’s entire university bill yourself. If you are in this situation, you should consider whether your former spouse or partner could contribute.

Problems arise if he (or she) does not agree to this. Most issues of child maintenance are dealt with by the Child Support Agency (CSA). But if you approach the CSA, you will be told that they can only help you up until your child’s 19th birthday (provided he or she is in full-time education, otherwise it is 16). The assumption therefore is that the non-resident parent’s obligation to financially support his child ends at that point.

What many people do not realise is that the court can make orders for child maintenance in instances where the CSA cannot do so. An example of this is the power to order periodical maintenance payments for the benefit of a child who is undergoing education or training. These payments can continue beyond the child’s 18th birthday in order to provide maintenance during a higher education course.

It is also possible for a court to order the payment of a lump sum for the benefit of a child. Each case will turn on its own facts and the issues that the court will consider include the child’s financial needs, the non-resident parent’s ability to make payments and the manner in which the child is expected to be educated or trained.

A parent with whom a child resides can make an application for a financial order, regardless of whether they were married to the other parent. Even though the court can order the maintenance to last until the end of tertiary education, the application must be made before the child turns 18.

These issues often raise their head when parents are getting divorced and future financial needs and obligations are considered. It may be that if you are getting divorced and your children are young that the issue of university education seems a long way off and it seems more relevant to focus on immediate needs. However, in order to avoid the need to make another application to court in the future, you should raise the issue so that suitable provision can be made.

It is also possible in limited circumstances for a child to bring an application themselves for maintenance from a parent, even if they have reached the age of 18. This only applies in cases where the child’s parents are separated and only where there was not a maintenance order in force immediately prior to his 16th birthday.

Therefore, if you have a maintenance order that has expired, your adult child cannot bring a fresh application for payments. The correct approach would have been to apply for an extension during the life of the order or to have made an application before the child reached the age of majority.

If you are a separated or divorced parent, whatever the ages of your children, you should review current maintenance arrangements and potentially seek legal advice if you are unsure about things. Given the costs involved, it really does pay to plan ahead.

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