Just a few months ago, Rachel Canning was the star of New Jersey news. Remember, the teen who sued her parents for child support after she moved out of their home and alleged abuse? Although Miss Canning was not successful in her pursuit of child support, a new New Jersey teen has recently taken the spotlight in a similar situation. This time, however, the teen isn’t suing for child support. This case concerns her out of state college tuition to be paid even though she does not speak to her parents. Let’s explore.

Caitlyn Ricci is the daughter of Maura and Michael. Although her parents got married at a very young age and only stayed married for two and a half years, they have prided themselves on giving their daughter the best life they possibly could. The reason I say that Caitlyn is “estranged” then is because she decided that she didn’t want to abide by her parents rules and moved out of her mother’s house, only to move in with her grandparents. As a New Jersey divorce and child custody attorney, I usually recommend reunification therapy for the family. However, everyone involved must be “on board” with such a scenario and proceed in good faith, but I digress.

When it came to the point of Caitlyn’s high school career where she started to apply to colleges, she was fully aware that her parents were willing to contribute to her tuition only if she attended a college in New Jersey. However, since she really hadn’t spoke to either of her parents throughout the college application process, she decided to select the school of her choice–Temple University in Pennsylvania. However, now that Caitlyn is twenty-one years old, she decided she wanted her parents to start paying for her tuition at Temple. Of course, her parents refused.

Caitlyn decided to take matters into her own hands after learning of her parents’ refusal to pay. She filed a motion to intervene in her parents’ divorce action so she could legally sue them for the cost of her college tuition. The Court granted her motion and Caitlyn became an intervening third party. And just recently, a New Jersey Family Court sided with Caitlyn and ordered her parents to pay $16,000 toward her tuition at Temple. The order was entered into without a hearing.

As I discussed in several pieces, divorced parents in New Jersey are required to pay for college on behalf of their children pursuant to the case of Newburgh v. Arrigo. In Newburgh, the Court articulated twelve factors to consider when determining how much parents are responsible to contribute to their child’s college tuition. Especially relevant to Caitlyn and her parent’s situation is the twelfth factor; the “child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.”

If a court finds that the parent child relationship is so removed and estranged, it very well might deny college contributions. The case ofGac v. Gac is a great example of this scenario. In Gac, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that in certain circumstances an estranged non-custodial parent should not be responsible to pay for the child’s college tuition. The Court found that the relationship between the child and parent was far too alienated to mandate payment of tuition. Furthermore the Gac court held that three issues must be examined when analyzing the twelfth Newburgh factor. In particular: (1) what caused the breakdown in the relationship; (2) if the child alienated the parent or vice versa; and (3) if the child told his/her parent which college he/she wanted to attend.

Although Caitlyn has won at the lower court level, her parents plan to appeal. Since the facts of the case are extremely specific, the Appellate Division will definitely have to look to New Jersey case law for more guidance. As seen in the Gac case, there are instances where the court will not require a parent to pay his or her child’s college tuition. If we were to apply the standard set forth in Gac to Caitlyn’s case, it is difficult to tell what the clear answer really is. So far, there was no hearing or examination of who was at fault for the breakdown of the parent-child relationship. Furthermore, while it is known that Caitlyn moved out of her mother’s house, it is unclear as to why she moved.

As this case progresses, we at the Law Offices of Edward R. Weinstein will continue to keep you updated on this red- hot issue. Thank you.