Under New Jersey Divorce Law, Am I Responsible To Pay For My Child’s College If They Choose a More Expensive School?
As a New Jersey family lawyer for over twenty years, I know that the burden of paying child support is one that concerns all divorcing couples. Raising a child is expensive, especially in this day and age. Between the clothes, food, and leisure activities the economic realities of raising a child can be frightening. And since the Newburgh decision, that holds that in or after a New Jersey divorce the parents responsible to pay for their children to go to college, thoughts of having to pay child support have only become more dismal in our state. While many of my clients are familiar with this infamous case, questions still always seem to arise. In particular, I find that a lot of my clients want to know if they will be responsible to pay for their children to go to whatever school they choose, even if it is a pricey one like Lehigh or George Washington. Let’s explore.
Recently, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Ocean County, Family Part decided the case of Black v. Black, 436 N.J. Super. 130 (Ch. Div. 2013). The case presented many red-hot legal issues—one of them being whether a parent should be responsible to pay for an expensive private school even if their child had been accepted to a cheaper state school. The Blacks were married for seventeen years. Three children were born of the marriage. In July 2010, the Blacks divorced and entered into a comprehensive settlement agreement with one another. One component of the agreement touched upon child custody and support issues, particularly that the parties would share joint legal custody of their children, while the plaintiff would have physical custody over the kids with the defendant being granted parenting time.
When discussing child support, the parties revealed their respective incomes. The plaintiff had an imputed yearly income of $20,000 and the defendant had an imputed yearly income of $60,000. The defendant agreed to pay $300 per week for support to the plaintiff, and the two of them agreed to contribute to their children’s college funds. While the specific amounts were not stated, the agreement held that the contributions would be determined when it was time for the kids to go to college and would be based upon a review of each party’s overall financial circumstances at that time.
In 2012, one of the Black’s children was accepted into Rutgers University. The annual cost of the tuition to attend Rutgers for the child was around $12,000 after scholarships and loans. Yet, at the end of his freshman year, he had performed extremely well and was accepted as a transfer student to the University of Miami. Unlike Rutgers University, University of Miami was an out-of-state, private school, which cost a lot more for the child to attend than Rutgers. The estimated annual tuition to attend University of Miami after the child had received financial aid was $22,000, a significant amount more than the Rutgers in-state tuition. The father refused to pay his son’s college tuition and thus the lawsuit unfolded.
The Black court looked to the case of Finger v. Zenn, 335 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div. 2000) for guidance on the issue of a parent’s responsibility to pay for a more expensive college when the child had already been accepted to a cheaper one. The Finger court noted that family finances may often limit college options or in some cases make college an unfulfilled wish. In the case at bar, even after consideration of available student loans, grants, and scholarships, the parties could simply not afford to pay the tuition for their son to attend the University of Miami. The Black court distinguished the Finger case in that in Finger, the parents were wealthy, high earning professionals. Here, the Black’s were not extremely wealthy and even if they wanted to pay for the University of Miami, they simply couldn’t afford it.
It is important to takeaway from the Black case that this area of the law is very fact specific. Had the Blacks been wealthier, they might have be legally responsible to pay for their son to attend the University of Miami. The important point, though, that the Black court made was that the issue of expensive schools v. cheaper schools was one that the court could indeed hear and decide upon. If you have children who are planning to start look at colleges this year for next year and have more questions on this issue, please do not hesitate to contact my office today.