Post-secondary support in WA is governed by RCW 26.19.090. The matter is first brought before a court commissioner on a show cause docket. The petition MUST be filed before the termination of child support under the existing order. Unlike ordinary child support, the child support schedule is advisory rather than mandatory. The court has a great deal of discretion is fashioning an order, from denying the petition and terminating support all the way to creating a formula for post-secondary support.
The statute specifies that post-secondary support payments be paid directly to the institution, if feasible. If the child lives at home, the paying parent pays the support to the parent with whom the child is living. If the child does not live at home, the support can be paid directly to the child (although that raises issues about whether the child is good handling money).
If you are filing for support, you need to supplement the mandatory forms with 2 years of tax returns (or W-2s if you haven't filed) and your most current wage information. In addition you need to provide as much financial information about the prospective colleges your child will attend. That means FAFSA application/response, tuition/fee information from schools (easily available online), any financial aid packages offered, any other assets (i.e., legacy from a grandparent) and the child's financial information. If the child will be living at home during college, calculate room & board using public university numbers if the school has none available.
Many parents simply propose child support exactly as it was done during their divorce/paternity case. This is not how it works. Post-secondary support is to provide for educational expenses not covered by grants, scholarships or other assets.
If you're the respondent, provide your own financial information as above
Calculating Post-secondary Support
There is no one way required by law to figure a parent's support obligation. One of the most common ways is by thirds. You take the cost of a year of education, subtract all of the financial aid, and divide the rest by three. The idea is each parent pays one third and the child pays a third. So, if the remaining amount is $9000, then each party would pay $3000. To get the monthly payment amount, simply divide by 12. $3000 divided by 12 is $250, so it would be $250 per month. Coming up with a monthly amount using 12 months means that the paying parent would be paying during the summer months when the child is not in school.
As I said, this is not the only way to figure this. If you and the other parent are able to work together to come up with a different method, as long as it's clear that the child will be able to pursue higher education the court should not object.
Note that courts will usually expect the child to contribute financially to his/her own education.
What the Court Considers
If the case is contested and goes before a commissioner, the commissioner has to consider the following after finding that the child is dependent and relying on the parents for the reasonable necessities of life:
1. Child's age, needs, prospects, desires, aptitude, abilities or disabilities.
2. The expectations of the parties for the child when the parties were together.
3. The parents' level of education, standard of living, and both current and future resources.
4. The amount and type of support that the child would have gotten if the parents had stayed together.
5. The nature of the post-secondary support sought.
Another consideration is whether the student is taking advantage of all available financial aid. The student cannot turn down sources of funding that do not require re-payment (i.e., work-study awards).
The Child's Obligations
The child has to be enrolled in an accredited academic or vocational school, actively pursuing a course of study consistent with his/her vocational goals, and be in good academic standing. Failure to comply with these requirements results in automatic suspension of the post-secondary support obligation.
in cases where there has been parental alienation and the paying parent has difficulty getting the child to share information in a mature fashion, the parent should insist that the court order require the child to keep a valid release of information on file with their college/vocational school so that the paying parent can obtain academic progress information and the student's financial information as long as the post-secondary support order is in effect. The order should reflect that post-secondary support payments should not begin until the paying parent has been provided with a copy of the release of information.
When Does Support End?
Post-secondary support ends when the child has completed their education, but no later than age 23 (absent "exceptional circumstances" relating to documented disabilities). The court is not requiring that a parent fund a perpetual student.
If the child fails to comply with educational requirements, the paying parent can bring a motion to terminate support. This is where it is useful to have a release of information. Although the statute says both parents have access to education records, most schools do not honor that statute as a practical matter. To get a termination of support, you need to provide documentation that the child is not making academic progress, has dropped out or has become entirely self-supporting.