If I Am Divorced In New Jersey and My Child No Longer Speaks To Me, Do I Have To Pay For Her College Expenses?

The short answer is, most likely. This has been a red-hot topic here in New Jersey. To wit, New Jersey divorce law forces divorced parents to pay for their kid’s college while an “in-tact” family is not. As my associate lawyers and I were just discussing, another case just recently came down that forced the father to pay for college and graduate school even though he has no relationship with the child whatsoever. While New Jersey Family Courts seem to be consistent in this regard, as an attorney who has handled many of these cases, I am aware that there is one case out there that relieves a parent from having to pay for his estranged daughter’s higher education. This case is Gac v. Gac.

The Gac case determined that the father was not liable to pay towards his estranged daughter’s higher education primarily because he was not consulted at all in the decision of what college she would attend. Moreover, the daughter chose a private (and therefore much more expensive) school that offered the same opportunities and curriculum as an excellent State school, at a fraction of the cost. Again, as a busy divorce lawyer here in New Jersey, I frankly do not feel that the Gac case is given enough recognition, it is the paramount argument to make in order to protect a client in this situation. Now, let’s take a very close look at the facts in Gac.

In the Gac case, Paul and Gaynell Gac were married in 1971 and had two children, Justin and Alyssa. The couple’s stormy relationship resulted in a separation in 1983, and finally a divorce in 1987. Dr. Mathias Hagovsky performed a psychological evaluation on the family upon the order of the court. Gaynell alleged that she was physically abused in front of her children. Justin supported this allegation. Dr. Hagovsky found that Justin was traumatized and did not feel safe in the presence of his father. Alyssa similarly felt nervous around her father, and was unable to communicate her feelings to him. Paul himself admitted that he had a terrible temper and rage problem. Based on the evaluation the court did not order any visitation time between Paul and his twelve and nine year old children.

Paul established a “one way” relationship with his children upon the recommendation of Dr. Hagovsky. This relationship consisted of occasional letters, gifts, and telephone calls. While Paul made numerous attempts to communicate with his children they did not return the effort. Finally, in 1994, Paul received a package from his children containing many of the cards, letters, and checks he sent them. Within the packet was a letter from then sixteen-year-old Alyssa stating, “We don’t want to hear from you. We don’t want anything to do with you.”

Paul had remarried in 1989, became the stepfather of two children, and had a child with his new wife in 1994. Later he started school to become a paramedic and accepted a job in Philadelphia. Paul also purchased a second home in Philadelphia to establish residency for his new job as a paramedic.

Alyssa eventually started applying to colleges. During the selection process she never once consulted or talked to her estranged father. Ultimately, Alyssa decided on Quinnipiac College, a relatively expensive private school. Despite the steep price of tuition at Quinnipiac, Alyssa refused to ask her father for financial help. In fact, on her financial aid applications Alyssa indicated that her father was not a part of her life, he was not assisting her in paying for college, and she had no idea where he was.

Paul continued to make child support payments throughout his daughter’s tenure at Quinnipiac. Fortunately for Paul, his son Justin reached out to him in 1996, and they re-established a relationship. During this time Justin informed his father that Alyssa was attending Quinnipiac. Alyssa would go on to graduate from Quinnipiac in May 2000.

On July 11, 2000, Paul filed a motion seeking to end his child support obligations. Unsurprisingly, his ex-wife opposed his motion and asked the court for a continuation of child support, and to order Paul to pay for Alyssa’s college bills. While the court ended Paul’s child support obligation, they demanded Paul pay for half of Alyssa’s remaining college loans. After Gaynell provided proof of her daughter’s loans the court determined that Paul should reimburse his daughter to the tune of $ 35,000.

Paul sought help from the Appellate Division, which ordered the trial court to reconsider the case using the Newburgh factors. The Newburgh factors are twelve factors developed in 1982 in Newburgh v. Arrigo. According to the Newburgh factors courts should consider: whether the parent would have assisted in college expenses had there have been no divorce; the background, values, goals of the parent; the amount of assistance requested by the child; the parents ability to pay; the relationship of the contribution to the field of study sought by the child; financial resources of both parents; the child’s commitment to higher education; the child’s own financial resources; the child’s ability to work during college; financial aid availability; the child’s relationship to the paying parent; and the relationship between the education requested and the long term goals of the child.

The trial court was to consider the facts that: Paul was not allowed to be a part in the college selection process; Gaynell and Alyssa chose a fairly expensive college instead of more practical options in New Jersey and Vermont; Alyssa never tried to gain summer employment while in college; there were grants available that Alyssa did not pursue; and Gaynell did not seek financial assistance from Paul during the time the loans were taken. The Appellate Division also stressed the importance of Moss v. Nedas, where the court found it “inappropriate to compel the father to contribute to his daughter’s college expenses” because there was no “meaningful father-daughter relationship.”

The new trial court hearing was held on February 10, 2003. After weighing the facts the court determined that despite the fact that Paul may not have paid for Alyssa’s college bill had his marriage lasted with Gaynell, he still had a responsibility to assist with his daughter with her college loans. Paul was ordered to pay 40% of his daughter’s loans plus any interest that had accrued. The trial court’s reasoning for lowering Paul’s obligation from 50% to 40% was that Alyssa chose an expensive college without having consulted with her father.

Paul again went to the Appellate Division to seek help. The Appellate Division communicated the inherent difficulty in balancing the Newburgh factors in the case due to the fact that there were equitable considerations supporting each side. Equitable consideration means trying to be just, fair, and right, in consideration of the facts and circumstances of the individual case. The court noted the fact that Alyssa still feared her father was relevant to the Newburgh factors, and that Alyssa should not be penalized for her estrangement from her father. This fact outweighed the facts that Paul was not consulted during the college selection process, Alyssa chose an expensive college when more affordable options were available, and that Paul paid $ 225 a month in child support throughout his daughter’s four years in college. While the court found it important that Gaynell did not seek reimbursement for Alyssa’s loans until her daughter had completed college and Paul moved to terminate child support, they concluded that Paul still had to contribute with his daughter’s college expense. The Appellate Division did however disagree with the trial courts award amount and ordered Paul to pay Alyssa $ 20,000, inclusive of interest.

Subsequently, Paul asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court realized the incredible impact this decision could have on New Jersey case law, and in turn granted amici curiae status to the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Amicus curiae literally means “friend of the court” and is granted to someone who is neither a party to a case, nor has been solicited by any of the parties to assist. This status is used as a way to introduce concerns ensuring the possibly broad legal effects of a court decision will not depend solely on the parties directly involved in the case, and to help the court by clarifying the law impartially.

Paul argued that the first Newburgh factor was the most important and that a parent who would not have assisted his child with college expenses if he had not gotten a divorce, should not have to assist the child with college expenses after a divorce. Furthermore, Paul contended that forcing divorced parents to pay for their child’s education, but not requiring the same of married parents, violated both the United States and New Jersey Constitutions. Conversely, Gaynell argued that the lack of Alyssa’s relationship with her father, and the fact that Paul would not have paid for his daughter’s college expenses even if they parties had not divorced, are only two factors, and all the Newburgh factors should be weighed together. Gaynell further contends that the constitutional argument should not be considered, solely because Paul had failed to raise it previously. Moreover, even if the court decided to hear it, it was still no violation.

The New Jersey State Bar Association asserted that the Newburgh factors should remain the authority in determining a divorced parent’s obligation to his or her child’s college expenses, and urged that the same factors actually protected a parent’s constitutional rights. Likewise, the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers advised that the Newburgh factors did not violate either the United States or New Jersey Constitutions, and that Pennsylvania is the only state to have found that it does.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the first Newburgh factor is not in fact the most important factor, and that all of the factors must be considered together. Regardless, the Supreme Court still found that a proper balancing of all the Newburgh factors led to a decision favoring Paul. The Newburgh factors require that a parent or child seeking a contribution towards college expenses must make the request before the same expenses are incurred. Due to the outcome, the Supreme Court also found it unnecessary to visit the constitutional issued raised by Paul. For more information on this issue, please contact my office today.

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