How do I get the court to order my ex to help pay for our kids’ college educations?

First, you should know that while a Utah divorce court can order child support even after a child attains the age of 18 years, courts rarely do so; however, § 15-2-1 of the Utah Code does provide: “It is further provided that courts in divorce actions may order support to age 21.”

So while a Utah court cannot order that a parent pay for all of a child’s college education, it could order that a parent pay child support for three years after the child turns 18 (i.e., to age 21), which might help that child afford college.

Do Utah courts order that a parent be responsible for paying child support after his/her child attains adulthood? Yes, but not very often, and not without there being some special circumstance to justify continuing child support beyond age 18.

Here are a few Utah cases that explain when child support for adult children is appropriate:

Harris v. Harris, 585 P.2d 435, 436 (Supreme Court of Utah 1978)

In a divorce action, the courts are already injected into the affairs of the family in determining the needs of the children and parents, and the parents’ ability to provide between themselves for the needs of all. The courts need flexibility in re-arranging the obligations as new needs arise; and the purpose of Utah Code Annotated, 1953, Sec. 15-2-1 is to give the courts latitude in determining whether exigent circumstances exist which necessitate further support of dependent children rather than allowing them to become dependent on the State.


It is immaterial what the judge thought about the age of majority of children. The statute clearly states that it is 18 years. What is important is that the court has power to order continued support until age 21 when it appears to be necessary and when the court makes findings of any special or unusual circumstances to justify the order.

Carlson v. Carlson, 584 P.2d 864, 865 (Supreme Court of Utah 1978)

From the wording of that statute it could hardly be made plainer that the authority to extend the obligation of a parent to support his child beyond the age of 18 is discretionary. We see this as a wise and proper legislative recognition of the fact that, though children attain their majority and thus become emancipated at 18, there may nevertheless be unusual circumstances where the court would be justified in placing that additional burden on the parents. However, it is to be kept in mind that any discretionary power is not absolute, but must be exercised with reason and good conscience upon a foundation of facts so justifying.

On the basis of the above-quoted statute [§ 15-2-1] and of well-established decisional law, it is obvious that there must be some difference between the obligation of parents to their children before they reach their majority and after that event. The facts are commonly known that a large percentage of our people do not regard a college education as any absolute essential to living and do not attend college; and that even less ever graduate therefrom.  Further harmonizing with the views expressed herein is the fact that the public policy of our state relating to the requirement that children attend school until the age of 18 correlates with the age at which children are emancipated and attain their majority as provided in Section 15-2-1 above referred to.

In the case of Ferguson v. Ferguson this court has but recently had occasion to declare that a parent’s obligation to support his child normally terminates when the child attains his or her majority. We here reiterate the thought there expressed: that a parent will normally be quite willing to assist an adult child in furthering his education, but should not be compelled to do so except in unusual circumstances.

Ferguson v. Ferguson, 578 P.2d 1274, 1275 (1978 Supreme Court of Utah)

It is to be noted that the statute says the court “may” order support to age 21, meaning it is enabled to exercise its discretion.

The trial court in the instant matter did not order support beyond the age of eighteen, and the evidence supports his refusal to order continued support. At the time of the hearing, the girl was a senior in high school. She was working five hours per day, four days a week and seven hours on weekends, depending on her schedule. She testified that she earned $2.50 per hour and worked twenty hours per week or more. She paid nothing to her mother, the appellant herein, for board or room. She indicated a desire to attend the university here for four to six years.

Ordinarily a parent will be more than willing to aid and assist an adult child in securing a college education; however, one should not be compelled to do so by court order, except perhaps in some unusual circumstance, not present here. If he does not have the interests of his children at heart, that is and should be a matter of his own conscience and not of the court’s.

Jackman v. Jackman, 696 P.2d 1191 (Supreme Court of Utah 1985)

Section 15–2–1 of the Code states that the period of minority extends to age 18 and that “courts in divorce actions may order support to age 21.” U.C.A., 1953, § 15–2–1 (1983 Supp.) Thus, any child over 18 but not yet 21 may be the subject of a support order; there is nothing in the law limiting such support to cases where a child suffers from a mental incapacity.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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