MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Alexander Durand was delighted when his daughter earned admission to two of New England’s top private colleges. He was furious when a judge ordered him to help pay tuition at the school offering far less financial aid.
A married parent would never be subjected to such an order. But New Hampshire, where both Mr. Durand and his ex-wife live, is one of a growing minority of states allowing courts to force divorced parents to pay for their children’s college costs.
“It’s not so much the money — it’s having no input in the decision,” said Mr. Durand, 48, whose daughter and ex-wife preferred Brown University despite a better aid offer from Brandeis. Mr. Durand said the court order means he must pay more than $6,000 per year for college expenses instead of $3,000.
The issue is generating debate nationwide as lawyers, legislators and parents argue over whether the children of divorce — in an era of skyrocketing tuition — deserve legal protections different from the children of intact marriages.
Last year, Connecticut — through a law passed by the Legislature — became the 17th state to allow such court orders, according to family law specialist Laura Morgan of Charlottesville.
This year, due partly to impassioned lobbying by divorced, noncustodial fathers like Mr. Durand, New Hampshire lawmakers took a step in the opposite direction. The House of Representatives voted to prohibit courts from ordering a divorced parent to pay college expenses of a child 18 or older; the bill is expected to be considered by the state Senate next year.
“States are all over the place on this issue,” said Sandra Morris, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “In many situations, it’s very tragic — the divorced parents don’t do what they would have done if they had stayed together, and the children are pretty much cut off [from any support].”
Kate Haakonsen, a lawyer who helped draft Connecticut’s year-old law, said a majority of her state’s lawmakers felt it was appropriate to treat divorced parents differently from married couples when it came to college support.
“Children of divorced parents are less likely to go to college, less likely to go to prestigious schools, and generally are less economically successful than their parents,” she said. “As a matter of public policy, we have to decide if that’s what we want.”
In the states with laws like Connecticut’s, courts have repeatedly upheld that rationale. The exception is Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that there is no basis for distinguishing between divorced and non-divorced parents in regard to paying for college.
Jean-Claude Sakellarios, a New Hampshire lawyer, believes a former client might still be alive if his state’s judges shared the view of Pennsylvania’s high court.
The client, Luke Hovland — a forester-turned-salesman — committed suicide June 3, eight months after spending 43 days in the Stratford County jail for failing to pay more than $16,000 to his ex-wife to cover half of their daughter’s tuition at Tufts University.
Mr. Hovland said New Hampshire’s current policy would be improved if the courts placed a cap on the mandated payments, so that no parent could be forced to pay more than half of the tuition for in-state students at the University of New Hampshire — currently $8,644.