Newcastle’s Top Children’s Family Law Specialist comments in The North East Times

It’s that time of the year again when Britain’s motorways are littered with cars stuffed to the gunnels with duvets, suitcases, books and kettles, as tearful parents deposit their fledglings at university to start the next stage of their journey into adulthood.

Sending your child to university is a significant financial commitment. Despite the fact that they have reached the legal age of majority, and no doubt consider themselves independent adults, many remain financially dependent upon their parents throughout their three or four year or (god forbid) longer degree, relying on them for assistance with the cost not only of tuition fees and accommodation costs, but with general living and travel expenses.

Some of this may be covered by a student loan but it is rare that the loan on its own is enough to support even the most budget conscious of students.  When you and your child’s other parent are separated or divorced, the worry of funding a student lifestyle can seem even more burdensome.

There is a general misconception that maintenance for children ends without exception when that child leaves school, either at 16 or after A Levels.  Most child maintenance matters are now dealt with by the Child Support Agency (CSA), and it is true that their jurisdiction ends when the child reaches 16 or 19 if still in full time education. However, if the non-resident parent is unwilling to continue to assist financially by voluntary agreement, it is possible to apply to the Court for a maintenance order, which can cover the child’s time in higher education.

Primarily, it will be the parent with whom the student resides (when not at university) who will make the application to the Court, although there is provision for the child himself to make an application.  It is also worthy of note that any application will need to be made before the child turns 18, and in the case of an already existing order, before the terms of that order expire.

If the Court is satisfied that child has a financial need and that the non-resident parent has the ability to pay, then it is likely that the court will require the parent to provide support during a gap year and/or university course. The availability of student loans and grants or the possibility of a child working is not an argument against an order being made.

Unlike CSA payments, the Court has the power to order not only ongoing regular payments, but also if appropriate, a one-off lump sum payment.  It can also specify that the payments are to be made direct to the child as opposed to the parent with whom the child normally lives.

The Times Higher Education recently reported an increase in divorced mothers seeking legal advice as to whether their former husbands can extend child maintenance payments for children at university.  Although there are legal costs associated with making an application to the Court for a maintenance order, it would seem that these are deemed proportionate to the cost of maintaining a child through university.

If your child is contemplating university or equivalent beyond school, then plan ahead and don’t discount the opportunity because you are now a single parent. If in doubt, always seek early expert legal advice. Many local solicitors offer free initial appointments which will enable you to gain general advice before deciding which route to take.

Lucinda Connell is a Senior Solicitor and Collaborative Child lawyer Specialist of  Major Family Law, Ponteland, NE20 9SU.
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