As a practicing New Jersey divorce attorney, I deal with divorcing couples on a daily basis and the majority of those cases involve children. When a divorce case involves a child, it will inevitably also involve the issue of college and the allocation of responsibility for the costs associated with same.  Unfortunately, some relationships between a parent and a child break down to the point where one party may not be in the loop as to the college selection process or the costs associated with the child attendance at a particular school.  Often, this leads to a lawyer’s involvement, even when the divorce has been finalized years ago at a New Jersey Family Court. What is a parent’s obligation to contribute towards college in such a situation?  Does the child have to take out loans, etc. to help subsidize these costs?

New Jersey courts have long recognized a child’s need for higher education and that this need is a proper consideration in determining a parent’s child support obligation.   The seminal case in New Jersey surrounding college contribution is Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).  In said case, the court set forth twelve (12) factors for determining whether college contribution by a parent is appropriate. The court’s ultimate goal is to reach a fair and just decision whether and, if so, in what amount, a parent or parents must contribute to a child’s educational expenses.

A parent or child seeking contribution towards the expenses of higher education should make the request before the educational expenses are incurred. As soon as practical, the parent or child should communicate with the other parent concerning the many issues inherent in selecting a college.  At a minimum, a parent or child seeking contribution should initiate the application to the court before the expenses are incurred. The court has stated that a party’s failure to do so will weigh heavily against the granting of a future application.

What about a situation wherein a parent does the minimum and brings an application for contribution before the expenses were actually incurred but after the child’s college application and the acceptance process were completed? What if a parent has failed to advise the other party of the existence of an NJClass loan (a New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students, which helps an individual pay college costs that are not already covered by other sources of grants, scholarships and loans) that they obtained for which they want the other parent to contribute towards?

A party could take the position that this loan is not part of a student’s financial aid package, but a separate loan to ensure enrollment pending the court’s outcome.  Conversely, it could also be argued that it is part of the financial aid that should be deducted prior to a determination of any amount either party may have to contribute towards college expenses.  An NJClass Loan allows students or parents to borrow the money needed to meet the remaining costs of education after all other sources of student aid are used and can be obtained by the parent or student.  A court is likely to determine that this type of loan should not be deducted from the total cost of a student’s college education and I have heard of Judge’s ruling this way in the past.

This issue can get even further complicated if the party whom one is seeking contribution from has a strained relationship with the child.  I once dealt with the aftermath of a case, wherein both parents and the child where all deemed by the court to be responsible for the poor state of the father-son relationship.  In that matter, the child did not discuss his plans and goals with his father when he was applying for colleges. He also gave vague answers to direct questions regarding his choice of college and his choice of careers.

The father in this case argued that he should not be responsible for the payment of any college expenses since he had no input in the decision making process and had no relationship with the child.  The court ultimately held that this was only one (1) factor of the twelve (12) that the court needs to consider and that each case is fact sensitive and must be decided on its own facts.  The court found it appropriate to reduce the amount of contribution for the child’s educational expenses because of the exclusion of the father from the decision making process, but also ultimately held him responsible for contribution towards the child’s college expenses.

The court looked at the Newburgh factors and found that it was clear that the father should contribute to the cost of the child’s education and in considering the discrepancy in the parties’ income, a 20/80 split between the parties would be reasonable if the father had input in the decision making process.  The court did find that the complete alienation of the father from having even the most minor role in deciding the child’s future required a reduction in the amount of contribution by the father.  The court ultimately ruled that the father was to contribute sixty (60%) percent of the child’s expenses at college.

This case then came to me wherein there was an issue as to Parent Plus Loans and whether one parent should be compelled to pay the other parent for a Parent Plus Loan that they unilaterally took out and exhausted the total amount available to both parents collectively, so that the other parent could not obtain one themselves. The mother argued that the father should pay her his share of this loan directly to her immediately, even though she had twenty (20) years to pay this loan back.  The father argued that he should be able to pay this in installments consistent with the loan terms and receive the same benefit that the other party did. After much debate, the court held that the father should be able to pay his share directly to the mother, but consistent with the loan terms and over the life of the loan.

Putting this into perspective, just because a party does not have the greatest relationship with their child, or the fact that they may not have been involved in the college selection process, will not necessarily relieve them of their duty to contribute towards the child’s college costs.   It may however, if appropriate, warrant a reduction in the amount that said party is required to contribute.  This appears to be the court’s way of balance the equities and trying to provide a fair outcome to all parties with the child’s best interest in mind.

Paying for a child’s college education can be expensive and can have serious financial repercussions for a party. As practicing New Jersey divorce attorneys we can help you deal with this type of situation and get you the relief you are entitled to.

If you need knowledgeable attorneys to fight for you, do not hesitate to contact our firm to discuss your rights and how we can help.