For many parents with university-aged children, the end-of-year holidays sees their offspring return to the family home for a few weeks, to spend time with family. The same goes for summer holidays, when school terms end and kids have a few months’ hiatus from studies.
But relatively brief as these stints may be, for separated and divorced parents these weeks of together-time can throw a minor wrinkle into their existing child support arrangements (if they have not been clearly dealt with previously). In particular, the time away from school, and time spent with one or the other parent on weekends and during holidays, can require some financial recalibrating in terms of each parent’s support obligations.
This was the context in a recent case called F. (M.L.) v. B. (I.E.). The parents separated after 8 years of marriage in 2003, when their daughter was one year old. She was now a 22-year-old adult, who had started post-secondary studies at university in 2019, and was still enrolled and attending there.
Since separating, the parents had been in protracted litigation. They had gone to court repeatedly over how responsibility for their daughter’s university costs and related expenses was to be allocated. Under a 2013 order the parents were to share joint custody, with primary residence to the mother and the father paying child support.
But all that was liable to change in 2019, when the father asked the court to terminate his support obligations entirely, and have the mother pay support to him instead.
He claimed the daughter’s day-to-day residence was now with him: Despite having moved away for university, in practical terms she was coming back to live with him almost every weekend, during mid-terms, reading week, final exams and winter vacation. To complicate matters her university studies had been entirely online since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant she was no longer required to live away on campus.
The court was asked to untangle the extent of each parent’s financial responsibility, and also whether the daughter should be expected to contribute to her education. The court took the opportunity to review some of the basic legal principles on parental responsibility for educational expenses when an adult child lives away to attend full-time University. Those points include the following:
- In these scenarios the Child Support Guidelines do not dictate the amount; rather, the actual costs of providing for the needs of the child in his or her other residence are determined.
- Also, each parent’s contribution toward the cost of maintaining a family home – to where the child can return on weekends and during school breaks – is also factored in.
- Conversely, during periods when the child is living at home (e.g. the summer months) courts will usually order the amount dictated by the Guidelines.
Importantly, the child’s own ability to contribute to his or her education costs is also factored in. This can be in the form of student loans, scholarships, bursaries, summer employment, and savings. But as for the exact amount: Neither the Guidelines nor the courts offer clear guidance or a formula; it depends on the facts of each case. After looking at the means and needs of the child and each of the parents, the court will determine the amount after taking into consideration the following principles:
- Generally speaking, the more modest the parents’ means, the more the child will be expected to contribute.
- While children do have an obligation to make a reasonable contribution to their education, they are not expected to contribute all their earnings.
- The specific amount that a child is expected to contribute should be based on the what court called “common sense”.
In F. (M.L.) v. B. (I.E.) the court applied these principles to the complicated facts of the case, and allocated responsibility for the daughter’s post-secondary education and expenses accordingly.
It ruled the mother should pay the father less than full Guideline amounts while the daughter lived away at university, to reflect his reduced costs to provide food and shelter on weekends and school breaks. However the mother would pay full Table amounts during the summer, when the child lived with the father full-time. The daughter was also required to contribute to her own education to the extent defined by the court.
Full text of the decision: F. (M.L.) v. B. (I.E.), 2021 ONSC 3522 (CanLII)