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Words From Counsel Focus On Family Law Part Three

 The price tag for a college education today seems way out of proportion to the availability of jobs waiting for our college graduates, not to mention stating salaries. However, ensuring that our children get at least an undergraduate degree has become as much of a necessity as a high school diploma was just a few decades ago. With the cost of a private college in excess of $55,000 per year, a college education is probably the most substantial cost a parent will incur for their child. What does this mean for divorcing parents who are usually not in a position to afford such a huge expense?

New Jersey Courts are in the minority in this country, with substantial discretion to obligate divorced parents to pay for their children’s college education. However, neither our case law nor statutory framework makes such a contribution automatic. The issue of college contribution is governed by the seminal case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543-44 (1982), which held that financially capable parents should generally contribute to the college education of their unemancipated child who is also a qualified student. In Newburgh, the Supreme Court set forth a 12-part test to be considered when evaluating a claim for contribution to higher education costs. Among some of the most highly contentious factors in these cases are the ability of each party to pay, the financial resources of each parent, the child’s relationship with the paying parent, and the availability of college grants or loans. Id.

While many litigants privately agree in their divorce settlement agreement on the college issue, most simply state that such contribution will be pursuant to the parent’s respective ability to pay at the time the child attends college, leaving the allocation for a later date. While this seems ambiguous and creates vulnerability for post-judgment litigation, sometimes the children are very young at the time of the divorce and the parties are unwilling to commit themselves so far in the future. In other cases, parties seek to limit their responsibility by capping their maximum yearly contribution and others state outright that neither currently has the ability to pay for the child’s college education.

Some important takeaways from our case law on college contribution are: (i) a parent’s contribution to college is not limited to the cost of an in-state school such as Rutgers University; (ii) it is highly unlikely that a parent found to have caused the alienation in the parent-child relationship will escape a financial obligation towards college; (iii) a college-aged child who seeks tuition from a parent they harbor antipathy against may be required to attend counseling if that parent is to continue to be obligated financially; (iv) there needs to be communication between divorced parents regarding the child’s college education; and (v) whatever parents agree to in writing will be upheld by the court, barring a change in circumstances or unfairness. Once again, New Jersey has a strong public policy towards support for children who are academically inclined to get a higher education.

If you want to learn more about how the cost of college will impact you in your divorce, please call me today to set up a free initial consultation to learn more about this complex topic.

Until next month…SSC


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