College, Custody, and COVID-19

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With high school seniors having graduated without the experience of graduation, they prepare to move on to college – maybe. While a majority of university presidents have stated they intend to begin classes on campus in August, others have not so committed, and some have decided to spend the first semester online. How does the decision to attend impact divorced families?

In Missouri, courts make legal custody awards, and parents who share joint legal custody get to make the decisions together with respect to matters of education. What if divorced parents disagree about whether to allow their child to attend college on campus in the fall?

Parents can have legitimate concerns about whether their child should attend college on campus this fall. At the moment, not many universities have announced what protocols they will implement to assure the safety of all students, and therefore, parents have little information to reassure they would make the right decision in sending their child to campus. The danger of exposure on campus will remain real throughout the semester, and parents need to discuss this and agree upon it before the fall semester begins.

Safety is not the only matter of concern.  If a college decides to forego on-campus learning for the fall and instead offers classes online, and if the college continues to charge the same rate for tuition even though the educational experience will not be at all the same, conscientious parents have a difficult financial choice to make as well. Is it really worth paying full price at a prestigious school for education that occurs in their home? Would a semester at community college to acquire credits make more financial sense? Should a child take a gap year and wait until the virus has abated or we develop a vaccine? All of these questions raise difficult and serious issues parents must address.

We cannot give the right answer – that is for each set of parents to make as a family. But parents should not wait. They should be proactive and discuss these matters now, and if they need their attorneys to help or to find a mediator because they cannot agree, they should do so quickly. Given that the court system is hardly up to working at full speed, it is unlikely a judge will be available to resolve this matter before a family needs to reach a decision. Alternative dispute resolution will of necessity be the option of choice if parents cannot reach a consensus.

When children of divorced parents operating under a custody order that dictates the terms of payment – and parents who do not comply with these conditions could cost themselves reimbursement for college expenses or child support – it is not really just a child’s decision, even though that child is now an adult.

Health and safety, quality of education, and cost all factor into the important decision of attending college this fall. Parents should work together now to resolve this issue.

If you have questions about college and custody decisions, contact us – we can help.

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