As I discussed in my piece “Handling the Costs of College,” parents are responsible to support their children when they go off to school. Pursuant to the paramount case in New Jersey family law, Newburgh v. Arrigo, the court will look to a number of factors when determining how large of a contribution a parent must make to his or her child’s college education. As an experienced attorney in this area of the law, I find that the most frequently asked question in regards to support for children in college is “how much will I actually be responsible for?” And, the answer that I provide is always “it depends.” That is the case because it depends on the unique facts of every divorcing couple’s situation. Let’s explore.
Typically, I have clients that come to me asking if they will be responsible for paying for their son or daughter to go to an expensive private university. The answer to that question again depends on the financial status of the individual parties. Ultimately, the court is concerned with the parties paying for their child to go to school, not so much with which school the child selects. But what about the case where a child’s parents are paying for college, yet the child just can’t seem to graduate on time. Are the parents still responsible to support their child once the four-year period is up? In the recent New Jersey Appellate Division case of Wesley v. Noor, the court found that a parent was not responsible to pay for their child who wasn’t graduating on time. Let’s explore.
In Wesley, the parties divorced in South Carolina in 1998. One son was born of the marriage. After the divorce, the child relocated to New Jersey to live with the plaintiff in her home there. Years later in 2008, the child enrolled in Cumberland County College. At that point in time, the defendant was still paying child support as he had agreed to contribute to his son’s college education expenses. However, in 2011 the defendant filed a motion for emancipation and termination of child support because he felt that his son was not truthfully a full-time student. To support the motion, he stated that his ex-wife refused to provide him with proof that their son was a full-time college student. She would not show him proof of enrollment or the child’s transcripts and grades.
The motion was granted. The court stated that just because the child was eighteen did not automatically mean he was emancipated. Instead, the court found that the child was in fact not attending Cumberland County College full-time and based the decision upon that fact. The plaintiff appealed. She alleged that her son was making progress in school and that he would eventually graduate. She also stated that the defendant had agreed to contribute to college expenses and since the child was in college, the contribution should continue. On appeal, the court affirmed the decision of the trial court and held that it would not make the defendant continue to pay child support for a child “who is, on the court’s perception, not making progress at an appropriate rate of speed to justify requiring the defendant to continue to pay child support as though he child were still in high school.”
The court continued by stating that the child was not following a normal course. That is, taking seven years to graduate instead of four was not typical. Therefore, the court could not mandate that the defendant continue to support his son financially. It held that it could not “in good conscience require the defendant to keep paying support for going on four additional years while the child took twice as long to complete a program than normal.”
As I stressed in the beginning, cases involving paying for a child’s college education are extremely fact specific. The court will really look at the totality of the circumstances before it will render a decision, as it is vital to always preserve the best interests of the child. While the court found that the father was not responsible to pay for his son in the Wesley case, the holding is not the end all be all in this area of the law. If you have any general or specific questions when it comes to contribution to your child’s college tuition, please do not hesitate to contact my New Jersey divorce and Family Law Firm today. Thank you.