Typically New Jersey requires divorced parents to contribute to their children’s college expenses. In the past, college was considered a privilege reserved only for the wealthy and elite; however, as it has become more accessible to everyone, the question of expense must be considered by parents. With a wider variety of higher education, such as county, community, state, and private colleges, as well as vocational schools, it is easier for families of all budgets to find a tuition that fits their financial situation.
In the ground-breaking case Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982) the NJ Supreme Court addressed the issue of parental obligation in these situations. The court found that generally parents who are financially capable should aid their qualifying children in educational expenses, whether this be by paying all or part of the cost. In some cases, this responsibility can even include post-graduate education.
The decision also set forth a list of relevant factors courts should consider when evaluating a claim for contribution, including:
1. whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
2. the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
3. the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
4. the ability of the parent to pay that cost;
5. the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
6. the financial resources of both parents;
7. the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
8. the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
9. the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
10. the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
11. the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and
12. the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.
It is best for divorced parents in New Jersey to address college expenses as they would if they were still married, and expect joint responsibility. Parents should also be sure not to overlook college obligation when drafting the property settlement agreement. Even individuals with young children should take this into account; the agreement may be modified in the future, but adding this language in the initial agreement may save both parties from further disputes and legal fees.
If an agreement cannot be made between the parties directly or via divorce mediation, the discovery process will begin and attorneys will exchange relevant financial information on their clients including tax returns, W-2s, assets, and Case Information Statements. If attorneys cannot come to an appropriate agreement, the court will schedule a hearing in which the judge will take the discovery into account and determine each parent’s contribution, as well as address any additional child support modifications.
If you currently have a property settlement agreement that does not mention your child’s college tuition, a court will likely require some sort of contribution; however, it is still important to consult with a NJ family law attorney and consider whether modification to add the provision is appropriate in your case.
While some parents may believe that their child will be considered emancipated when they turn 18, this is not always the case. Emancipation usually only becomes an issue when a parent paying child support believes they should no longer be required to make payments. New Jersey does not have a fixed age for the termination of support; therefore, when the obligee-parent does not agree that payments should stop, the obligor must filed a motion seeking the emancipation of the child and termination of support.
An emancipated child is released from the control and support of a parent, as they have become financially independent. This age will be determined by the court unless an existing property settlement agreement has defined an age of majority; however, even this does not entirely release parents from the college contribution obligation – only a court may make a final decision on parents’ responsibilities in this matter.
There are instances in which contribution is not considered appropriate, such as if a child’s relationship to the parent is essentially non-existent despite the parent’s attempt to maintain it. These situations will be decided by the court on a case-by-case basis, so it is crucial to work with an experienced NJ family law attorney.