Posted on May 4, 2023

Do Unmarried Parents Have To Pay For Their Children’s College Expenses in Illinois?

In Illinois, age 18 is not the end of a parent’s obligation to their children. Illinois parents are still legally responsible for contributing to their children’s college expenses within reason.

A Divorced Parent’s Obligation To Pay For College In Illinois

In Illinois, married parents are governed by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act which provides that “The court may award sums of money out of the property and income of either or both parties or the estate of a deceased parent, as equity may require, for the educational expenses of any child of the parties. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, all educational expenses which are the subject of a petition brought pursuant to this Section shall be incurred no later than the student’s 23rd birthday, except for good cause shown, but in no event later than the child’s 25th birthday.” 750 ILCS 5/513

To determine the obligation of married parents to their college bound children, Illinois courts look at “The present and future financial resources of both parties to meet their needs, including, but not limited to, savings for retirement.(2) The standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not been dissolved.(3) The financial resources of the child.(4) The child’s academic performance.” 750 ILCS 5/513(j)

The college costs that an Illinois court can order will not exceed the tuition and room and board of the University of Illinois.

“Educational expenses may include, but shall not be limited to, the following:(1) except for good cause shown, the actual cost of the child’s post-secondary expenses, including tuition and fees, provided that the cost for tuition and fees does not exceed the amount of in-state tuition and fees paid by a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the same academic year” 750 ILCS 5/513(d)

An Unmarried Parent’s Obligation To Pay For College In Illinois

Unmarried parents in Illinois must have an order stating they are the parent to have any obligation to a child.

“The court shall issue an order adjudicating whether a person alleged or claiming to be the parent is the parent of the child.” 750 ILCS 46/802

Once that order is entered, the unmarried parent has the same obligation to that child as a married parent would have…including contributing to college expenses.

“In determining….expenses for a non-minor child, and related post-judgment issues, the court shall apply the relevant standards of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.” 750 ILCS 46/802

Contribution to college expenses is further enshrined in the Illinois Parentage Act of 2015.

“This subsection [regarding child support] shall not be construed to prevent or affect the establishment or modification of an order for the support of a minor child or the establishment or modification of an order for the support of a non-minor child or educational expenses under Section 513 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.” 750 ILCS 46/801(e),(m)

Unmarried parents’ contribution would be different than a married parent’s obligation because an unmarried parent would not have to consider “The standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not been dissolved” 750 ILCS 5/513(j)(2). This probably holds the unmarried parent to a different, lower standard.

One of the unmarried parents are likely to have a strained relationship with their college aged child. The relationship of the child and the parent does not affect the parent’s obligation to provide for the expenses of the child’s college education.

“[I]t is well settled that this obligation to contribute to educational expenses is not conditioned upon a continued good relationship between parent and child or upon obtaining prior consent from the supporting parent.” In re Marriage of Sreenan, 81 Ill. App. 3d 1025, 1029 (Ill. App. Ct. 1980)

Isn’t this kind of unfair? Won’t one parent and the child team up against the other parent to extract as much money as possible from the estranged parent? Parents who are still together could simply say, “No. We won’t spend $ 100,000 so you can take basket weaving classes.”

The Illinois Supreme Court has said since 1978 that differentiating between married and unmarried parents for the purposes of college expenses is perfectly acceptable. “[Section] 513 do not mandate that divorced parents must provide their children of majority age with funds for education in all cases. It is certainly a legitimate legislative purpose to minimize any economic and educational disadvantages to children of divorced parents. If parents could have been expected to provide an education for their child of majority age absent divorce, it is not unreasonable for the legislature to furnish a means for providing that they do so after they have been divorced. We have no hesitation, therefore, in concluding that it is reasonably related to that legitimate purpose for the legislature to permit the trial court, in its sound discretion, to compel divorced parents to educate their children to the same extent as might reasonably be expected of nondivorced parents.” Kujawinski v. Kujawinski, 376 NE 2d 1382 – Ill: Supreme Court 1978 (subsequently ratified by Yakich v. Aulds, 155 NE 3d 1093 – Ill: Supreme Court 2019)

While Illinois divorce courts are allowed to order support for college expenses, they are not required to order parents to pay college expenses. “While the court is authorized to order the payment of a child’s college expenses, it is not required to do so. ” In re Thurmond, 306 Ill. App. 3d 828, 834 (Ill. App. Ct. 1999)

What If The Child Of Unmarried Parents Was Never Declared The Child Of The Father?

Children are automatically determined to the child of an unmarried mother.

“The parent-child relationship is established between a woman and a child by:(1) the woman having given birth to the child” 750 ILCS 46/201(a)

If the biological father is not legally declared the father  earlier, the adult child (and only the child) can still declare the father their legal father for the purposes of pursuing college expense contributions from that father.

“A proceeding to adjudicate the parentage of a child having no presumed, acknowledged, or adjudicated parent may be commenced at any time, even after: a) the child becomes an adult, but only if the child initiates the proceeding” 750 ILCS 46/607(a)

The child would then need to recruit the other parent to pursue the college expense contribution request. The child may declare parentage alone but the child cannot pursue college expense contribution alone.

“The child is not a third party beneficiary to the settlement agreement or judgment between the parties after trial and is not entitled to file a petition for contribution.” 750 ILCS 5/513(i)

If you were never married but you had a child who is going to college, both parents may have an obligation to pay for college. Contact my Chicago, Illinois family law firm to discuss what (if any) obligation either parent has to their child beyond the age of 18.

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Russell Knight

Russell D. Knight has been practicing family law as a Chicago divorce lawyer since 2006. Russell D. Knight amicably resolves tough cases while remaining a strong advocate for his client’s interests.

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