Parents of college-bound children, take note: NJ child-support laws require all divorced parents to contribute to their children’s college educations. Although there are a number of factors that are considered in determining what the appropriate amount of the contribution should be for each parent, the truth remains that your children’s educational expenses should always be something to keep in mind while you are negotiating your settlement.
Elementary-aged kids or younger
If your children are relatively young when you are going through your divorce, you likely do not want to obligate yourself to a certain amount—or percentage—at the time of your divorce. After all, you have no idea what might happen to you or your career between now and then. You could become disabled and therefore unable to work, or you may win the billion-dollar Mega Millions lottery jackpot and be able to afford college tuition for your kids and 1,000 of their closest friends. You simply cannot predict the future. Generally, in this situation, your settlement agreement will simply acknowledge the obligation to contribute and will set a time to address it in the future based on your then-current income and assets.
If your children are in high school at the time of your divorce, it may benefit you to address the exact determination of contributions for college now as you’re figuring out child support. The years will pass quickly, and it may be financially to your benefit to address it while you are already paying counsel fees to your attorney. This may also be beneficial because in the event there are sufficient assets, you might decide that you will dedicate an asset to college expenses rather than dividing it in equitable distribution. For example, the firm recently had a case whereby the parties had an investment account valued at approximately $250,000. The parties decided that they would use that account to pay their son’s college tuition and that any remaining money would then go to him upon his college graduation. Under the law, they were each entitled to a share of that account. However, they determined it was in everyone’s best interest to dedicate the entirety to their son’s education and future.
Estranged from your child
Do parents have to pay for their children’s college education when they are estranged from their child? Would you still want to help pay for college for that child? Do NJ child-support laws require this? The Appellate court in NJ just tackled a similar case last week. In that case, divorced parents were dealing with an unruly daughter. She had behavioral problems, so she was not prepared to live away from home at college. She first began attending college at the local community college. She then went to Disney College, with the support of her parents, but was kicked out of school in the first month for hosting an underage drinking party in her dorm. Upon her return to New Jersey, her relationship with her parents deteriorated further and she left her mother’s home to live with her paternal grandparents.
The parents filed a consent order and agreement with the court to emancipate their daughter, meaning that they no longer had an obligation to support her financially. In a widely publicized case, the daughter was permitted to intervene in her parents’ case to seek contribution to her college expenses. A judge granted her request to intervene and ordered the parents to contribute to the relatively low-cost community college. The following year the daughter enrolled in Temple University (roughly 14 times the cost of community college). Again, she filed a motion with the court to force her parents to contribute to the cost of Temple and the trial court agreed, forcing the parents to pay for her college.
NJ child-support laws do require parents to have an obligation to support their unemancipated children, and that support may include contributing to the children’s college expenses. The exact amount of that contribution is case-specific and is based on a number of factors. These factors, set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529,545 (1982), include:
- Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the cost of the requested higher education;
- The effect of the background, values, and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
- The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
- The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
- The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
- The financial resources of both parties;
- The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
- The financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
- The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or vacation;
- The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
- The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and,
- The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.
The Appellate court sent this case back to the trial court to determine whether the child was truly “beyond the sphere of her parent’s influence” at the time she filed the motion seeking college contribution. If she was beyond the sphere of her parents’ influence, then the child’s application for college contribution would fail.
It remains to be seen what the final outcome of this case may be as it is still pending in the trial court. As you can see from the above factors, however, the child’s past conduct and estrangement from her parents may be weighed against her when the trial court re-addresses the parent’s obligations. The case raises significant concerns about a parent’s exposure for college expenses for a child with whom they are estranged and will set a precedent for NJ child-support laws.
At DeTorres & DeGeorge, we have extensive experience representing clients in cases involving NJ child support guidelines for college students, and emancipation and college expenses. If you have questions or concerns based on your own unique set of facts, please contact us to schedule a consultation today.