Following a New Jersey Divorce, Does My Child Have Any Say In What College They Shall Attend, Regardless of Cost??

New Jersey Family Courts and lawyers who handle child custody related cases rely on a number of factors in determining how much an estranged parent should contribute to their child’s education. As an experienced New Jersey divorce attorney, I have dealt with numerous cases in which a child or former spouse seeks contribution from an estranged parent. Many times a child will pick an expensive school without consulting the same parent the wish to receive support from.  A relevant issue in college contribution cases is the ability for the student to attend a state college or a more affordable college rather than attending an expensive first choice school. Black v. Black, explored the Newburgh factors and set the record straight. While parenthood carries with it a duty to provide a necessary education for children, that education must be financial viable.

In Black, husband and wife were married for seventeen years. Within a six-year span they had three children together. In July 2010 the couple divorced and entered into a written matrimonial settlement agreement. According to the agreement both parents would share joint legal custody of the children. At the time the children were ages 16, 13, and 10. The wife was named the primary residential parent, and the husband had the right to reasonable and liberal parenting time. In addition, the parties agreed that the father and oldest son would take part in father/son counseling, due to ongoing problems in their relationship.

At the time, the wife had an annual income of $ 20,000, while the husband had an annual income of $ 60,000. Based on this financial information, the parties agreed that the husband would pay his ex-wife $ 300 each week in alimony, with child support under New Jersey’s child support guidelines. Furthermore, the parties agreed that they would both contribute to their children’s future college expenses. Nowhere in the agreement did it state that a parent’s obligation to help pay for a child’s college expenses would be contingent upon the same child having an ongoing relationship with that parent.

Even though the matrimonial settlement agreement stipulated joint counseling, it did not occur after the divorce. While the eldest child did meet individually with a counselor, he refused to participate in joint therapy. The child did not want to see his father because he was treated poorly prior to the divorce. The husband admitted that their relationship had been hostile at times, but denied ever mistreating his son. Consequently, joint counseling between father and son never took place, and between 2010 and 2012, they had no contact with each other. Neither father nor son made any effort to forgive, apologize, or even address any previous wrong. Both sat idly by, silently blaming each other for the breakdown of the relationship. The court was sure to note that the husband maintained parenting time with his two other children. They regularly spent time with and even stayed at his house for periods at a time, with no allegation of mistreatment ever been made.

In 2012, the eldest child graduated from high school with honors, and was accepted into Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The college expenses were estimated at $ 12,000 per year, with a large portion being covered by grants, scholarships, and loans. The parties were unable to reach an agreement in regards to the uncovered balanced. The husband refused to contribute anything because his son refused to have any type of relationship with him. Conversely, the wife argued that their relationship should have nothing to do with his obligation to pay for college expenses, because the settlement agreement stipulated the same. While the wife did not set forth a request for a specific dollar amount, it became apparent to the court that she was seeking a court order requiring her ex-husband be held responsible for a substantial portion of his son’s uncovered college expense.

During the course of litigation, the son enrolled at Rutgers with his mother raising approximately $ 4000 to help pay for uncovered expenses. He did very well during his freshman year and decided to transfer to the University of Miami in Florida. The transfer was based on his interest in pursuing marine biology and University of Miami’s superior program in that area. The University of Miami was an out-of-state, private school, and much more expensive than Rutgers. The estimated annual cost of attendance was approximately $ 55,000, less $ 33,000 in financial aid, which left an uncovered balance of $ 22,000 per year.

Subsequently, the wife sought contribution towards her son’s Rutgers bills and his anticipated sophomore through senior years at University of Miami. The husband continued to object to paying anything. The litigation ultimately proceeded to a contested plenary hearing that was completed during the son’s freshman year at Rutgers. The testimony failed to the pinpoint the exact origin of the conflict and did not reflect whether the son or father was more at fault in causing or continuing the conflict. Regardless, the father still wanted to reconcile with his son, and accordingly wished to start the long-due father/son joint counseling that was first stipulated in the matrimonial settlement agreement. The son however was not receptive to this idea, even though he still wanted his father to contribute to his college expenses.

The court stated that a fact-sensitive analysis is necessary on a case-by-case basis in considering college contribution cases concerning the availability of lower-priced state colleges and private colleges. In determining the reasonableness of a financial contribution sought from a parent, the availability of less expensive, more affordable options is a logical, fair and equitable consideration. A child does not have the right to select any college he or she pleases, without regard of price or affordability, and require the parents to pay for it. While, in this case, the parents had previously agreed to contribute to their child’s college expenses, there still must be a logical consideration of all the options available to the child, including schools that are less expensive.

This reasoning is based on three of the Newburgh factors, specifically factors three, four, and six. To determine the extent of a parent’s obligation to contribute to college costs, family courts generally consider the factors established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Newburgh v. Arrigo. According to the Newburgh factors, courts should consider: whether the parent would have assisted in college expenses had there have been no divorce; the background, values, goals of the parent; the amount of assistance requested by the child; the parents ability to pay; the relationship of the contribution to the field of study sought by the child; financial resources of both parents; the child’s commitment to higher education; the child’s own financial resources; the child’s ability to work during college; financial aid availability; the child’s relationship to the paying parent; and the relationship between the education requested and the long term goals of the child.

In Black the court the court stressed that, regardless of what a student’s school of choice may be, no parent should be expected to contribute more they he or she can reasonably afford. Economically speaking, parental duty can only go so far.

Even after available student loans, grants and scholarships, the Blacks did not have enough income and assets to send their child to the University of Miami. In their matrimonial settlement agreement, the parties voluntarily agreed to contribute to their children’s college cost in accordance with their financial capabilities, and the University of Miami was well above their means. Consequently, the court ordered the parents manage a joint contribution to help their son with his college costs at a school he could afford. For more information on this issue, please contact my office today.