A hot topic in New Jersey divorce law over the past few years had involved payment of college tuition and related expenses by divorcing (or divorced) parents. As an attorney practicing here in New Jersey, it is my fervent opinion that most folks do not feel it is fair that divorced couples are “forced” to pay for their child’s college education yet married families have the “option” to do so. Moreover, many parents are compelled by Family Courts here in New Jersey to pay for college expenses even in situations in which the parent and child have been estranged from one another. Finally, there is the never-ending controversy of divorced parents keeping one another “in the loop” with respect to making decisions related to college expenses.

It is a constant financial battle between having the ability to contribute towards these ever increasing costs and actually being informed and kept in the loop of what you are paying for. Unfortunately, sometimes the other party, with whom the child resides, sees the other parent as nothing more than a pay check, instead of an equal provider and decision maker for the child. This creates conflict because that parent then feels like they get to make all of the choices and they do not have to keep the other informed. This is also very unfair to the parent who feels left out and essentially used. Let’s explore.

As you may have guessed, I have had this come up a few times in my practice. By way of example, the parties got divorced many years prior to their son being ready to attend college. The child grew up, his relationship with dad became strained throughout the years, the reasons as to why are debatable depending on which parent you ask, and he was graduating high school and ready to attend college. Once a college had been selected by the child and mom, the son had taken out his federal student loans and the mom availed herself of a parent plus loan for the maximum amount available (which was actually more than the tuition for the year), mom then decides to inform dad that x is where their son is going to school and that he will need to pay his share directly to the college in accordance with the terms of the parties’ Settlement Agreement at the time tuition is due. To make it even better, she then informs him that their son will be living on campus and he will need to pay his share towards the commuting expenses, food and items for the dorm room directly to her at a later date. Essentially, she left dad in the dark with no say as to any of these expenses until the decisions were made and the money was due, and naively expected dad to not ask any questions and pay it promptly.

Needless to say, this did not go over very well with dad. For starters, dad had a new family, a mortgage, bills to pay and his current wife was sick and needed surgery. How would he be able to pay for all of this? Wasn’t he entitled to know what these expenses were going to be beforehand and his thoughts on the matter considered? And most importantly, why wasn’t his financial circumstances taken into consideration when the college selection process was under way? At this point, mom wanted the money and dad could not afford to pay it. The parties were at an impasse and had nowhere to turn but the court system to address and resolve this issue.

What transpired next was a lengthy court process. It is not always easy to determine one party’s share of a child’s college expenses and the court needs to determine each case on their own merits. Before our involvement in the case, the Judge in this matter ordered the parties to exchange discovery and set the case down for a plenary hearing. The Judge felt that this was the only viable way at this point to determine if dad had an obligation to contribute since mom had not kept him informed and what everyone’s financial responsibility would be towards these college expenses.

The parties litigated the matter and the Judge was ultimately appalled at the mother’s actions, the fact that she did not keep dad informed and even went so far as to exhaust all of the parent plus loan so dad had no way to fund his share except for a personal private loan, but felt that it would be unfair to the child if dad did not have to contribute towards the college expenses. The Judge ruled that the child would first need to apply for all grants, scholarships and student loans and except those that he qualified for. Once these were exhausted, the child would then have to contribute a certain percentage of his yearly income towards the remaining college costs. After that, dad would have to contribute sixty (60%) percent towards the remaining “college expenses” and mom would have to contribute forty (40%) percent towards the same. An integral part of the Order though, was that mom must keep dad informed as to the costs and provide him with direct access to the school so he could see the tuition, financial aid, etc.

Instead of resolving the matter, this only led to more problems as mom did not believe she had to give dad complete access, but only the bare minimum that she felt complied with the Order. In addition, mom continued to take the full amount of the parent plus loan for the next two years as soon as possible in the maximum amount possible (once again over the actual tuition costs) without giving dad any opportunity to obtain same. This left dad in the same financial hardship as it did before. He had limited access to the financial aspects of college and was still not given the same opportunity as mom to secure a parent plus loan. This resulted in two more motions and court appearances to resolve the issue. Each time, dad was obligated to contribute, but each time, mom was ordered to provide access. It was at this point that our firm got involved in the case.

Mom finally complied and provided dad with online access through the son’s account with the school. Interestingly, mom gave dad the password, which was “momisthebest” (this is the old password as this came out in the papers submitted to the court and although mom proclaimed she was always in compliance with the court orders, the Judge saw right through this at oral argument and her vindictiveness in the matter as evidenced by this password). An issue then arose as to the exact “college expenses” that dad would have to pay as mom was buying a refrigerator for the dorm room, a vacuum, having food home delivered with surcharges and tip, and then submitting this to dad for payment. The matter was litigated again and ultimately the Judge took thousands of dollars off of the amount mom felt she was entitled to and despite it being highly contested by mom, allowed dad to pay his percentage share of the monies owed over the life of the parent plus loan. Mom opposed this and wanted the money paid directly to her right away. She wanted to take out the full amount from the parent plus loan, use the money however she pleased and then have dad pay her cash. Thankfully, after numerous prior appearances, the Judge saw through this ploy by mom and ultimately justice was served. Dad was provided access, the actual college expenses were determined, and a fair amount was calculated.

In the event you find yourself left in the dark when it comes to college expenses and potentially having to pay for the same, contacting an experienced family law and divorce attorney can help level the playing field and get you what you are entitled to. If you are in a situation like this, I invite you to contact our law firm for a free consultation. Thank you.