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Starting Oct. 1, Connecticut courts can compel divorcing parents to pay up to four years of higher education for their adult children through the age of 23. It’s been a controversial measure because it allows the state to intercede in what had previously been a private family matter. Outside of divorce, married parents aren’t normally required to provide any support to a healthy child beyond the age of majority. Much of the problem dates to the 1972 federal voting act, spawned by the Vietnam War anomaly of draft-age men expected to serve — and maybe die — but not vote. Shortly thereafter, all states but Missisippi lowered the legal age of majority to 18. With that, college students were suddenly independent, emancipated adults in the eyes of the law. DIVORCE KID, TOO? Anecdotal evidence from divorce lawyers suggests that in the bitterness of divorce, the non-custodial parent develops a defensive posture of paying only what the law demands. Until this year, it didn’t allow the state to force payment for college. At the close of the 2001 legislative session, a study group on the topic was set up to work with the Law Revision Commission. In public testimony, representatives of the Connecticut Bar Association’s family law section, Sarah Oldham and Kate W. Haakonsen, testified in favor of a post-majority support bill, expressing a prevailing sentiment among the family bar. Haakonsen, of Glastonbury’s Brown, Paindiris & Scott, also suggested extending the duty to married parents. Like the horse designed by a committee, the actual act as passed came out looking like a particularly ungainly camel. Oldham, of Westport’s Rutkin and Oldham, speaking at a June Bar meeting, said lawyers with imminent settlements “may want to take a four-month vacation” until educational support can be judicially ordered. If a weak settlement is negotiated just before the courts get the power to help, it could trigger client recriminations down the road, Oldham warned. The bill, Public Act 02-128, states that it “does not create a right of action by a child for parental support for higher education.” While the family law statutes refer to both alimony and child support, the term “parental support” is an anomaly, not found in statutes or case law, Oldham noted. Another quirk of the bill is its provision that parents can’t be required to pay more than the in-state rate that the University of Connecticut charges for “necessary educational expense, including room, board, dues, tuition, fees, registration and application costs.” Gaetano Ferro, of New Canaan’s Marvin & Ferro, said that limit sounds “a little bit arbitrary and stupid, and a little bit parochial.” Even if one parent is a recalcitrant billionaire, “the court has the authority to order him to pay college, but only up to the cost of UConn?” Ferro said with amazement. On a broader level, he predicted “It is going to be a nightmare.” The act requires a judge to find “as a matter of fact that it is more likely than not that the parents would have provided support” if still married. In an analysis of the bill’s provisions, Law Revision Commission Chief Attorney David L. Hemond said advisors were split on whether this demand to make a hypothetical finding was “appropriate and subject to pragmatic application.” The act allows judges to write the decree to leave the question of educational support for another day, or to foreclose any further reopening of the subject, if the parents knowingly waive their rights to post-majority educational support. As a practical matter, Ferro said his own practice has changed in the past 20 years. He represents men and women in approximately equal proportions, he said, but when negotiating for a woman client, he now advises against negotiating an educational fund at settlement. “The reason I stopped negotiating college — it may sound chauvinistic — is when you ask to set up a college fund, and take $200-, $300- or $400-thousand off the top, who’s paying for college? Mom. But by the time college rolls around, who actually may be in the better position to pay, with the lion’s share of the income? Dad. I would somewhat cynically tell my clients, when I represented women, you’ve got to be selfish at this point. If he’s a good dad, and can afford it, and the kids maintain a good relationship with him, he’ll pay. If he’s a jerk, it’ll come out of your assets anyway.”

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