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Can I Be Forced To Pay For My Child’s College Expenses If I Get Divorced But Cannot Afford To?

            No.  A judge of the Family Part, Superior Court of New Jersey is bound by the law to take many factors into consideration when determining if a parent is legally obligated to help pay for their child’s college education during or following a divorce.  This includes an inability to pay.  However, the divorce lawyers at our law firm understand that New Jersey law as to payment college expenses is highly complex taking many factors into account including the child’s ability to obtain a student loan. 

            In T.C. v. N.M., the parties share twin children, born in 1996, although the parties were never married.  The children’s relationship with their father became strained in high school, so the children did not include him in their college plans.  The parties’ daughter chose to attend an out-of-state public college, while the son chose to continue to live at home and attend community college.  In order to pay for college, the parties’ daughter sought to obtain student loans, and the mother took out a $25,000 “Parent PLUS Loan” toward her daughter’s education.  The parties’ son also sought to take out student loans, and obtained student loans that amounted to more than the total amount of his tuition.  Neither the children nor the mother asked the father to pay any money toward the children’s college expenses.

        The father filed a motion with the court asking the court to emancipate the children, meaning the children would be legally recognized and treated as adults.  The mother then filed a cross-motion with the court asking to recalculate child support and that the father contribute financially to the children’s college education.  The court ordered that the parties attend mediation, which is a form of dispute resolution where the parties can settle their issues outside of the courtroom.  The court ordered mediation was unproductive, so the court held a plenary hearing, which is held when there are material facts being disputed and the court wants to hear testimony from the parties on the issue. 

          The judge in the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey evaluated the parties’ salaries and assets, as well as other familial obligations, such as the father’s other four children and wife, when considering if the father should contribute to the children’s college expenses.  The judge decided that the parties would not be able to provide financially to their daughter’s college education.   However, the parties wanted their children to go to college, so the judge analyzed the situation under the Newburgh factors, which are economic and non-economic factors that determine if a parent should contribute to their child’s college education.  Some of the Newburgh factors include whether the parent would have contributed to college costs if the parent were still living with the child, the amount of money the child is asking the parent to contribute, and the parent’s ability to contribute that amount.  Based on these factors, the judge determined that the parties should both contribute to the daughter’s college expenses.

          The judge originally found that the father should contribute sixty-two percent of the daughter’s college education, but after considering the father’s other obligations and the fact that the mother already took out a $25,000 loan, the judge found that the father should contribute the same amount as the mother toward the daughter’s expenses, totaling $25,000.  The judge further found that any expenses beyond the parties’ contribution would fall solely on the daughter because she should have considered her parents’ ability to contribute when she decided to attend this specific college. 

            Although the judge ordered the father to contribute toward the daughter’s college education, the judge did not order the father to help pay for the son’s college expenses.  The judge found that the father did not need to pay because the son’s loans fully paid for his tuition.  However, on January 5, 2016, the judge did order that child support remained in effect and was to increase ninety-three dollars per week because the son was still living at home with the mother and no longer having overnight visits with the father.  The judge also ordered that alimony be reduced by twenty percent to account for the father’s financial circumstances.

            On appeal, the father argued that the Family Part judge abused her power by ordering that the father continue to pay child support for the son, and that the judge wrongly evaluated the Newburgh factors.  The New Jersey Appellate Division disagreed with the father and affirmed the decision of the Family Part judge.  The Appellate Division noted that its review was limited and that it must look to the factual findings of the Family Part judge.  Although the Appellate Division recognized that college is expensive, it found that the Family Part judge’s decision was supported by credible and reliable evidence.  The Appellate Division, therefore, affirmed the decision of the Family Part judge.