Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

Why Are Divorced Parents In New Jersey Forced To Pay For Their Children’s College?

Even since the Rachel Channing case, in which a child sued her parent’s for private school tuition and college, the attorneys at my office have been busy fielding questions from our divorce clients regarding why they are legally compelled to pay for college whereas married people are not.  So as I considered my next topic for my next New Jersey Divorce Lawyer Blog, I felt it would be appropriate to discuss the case that established the limited exceptions (in this case, college related expenses) from the general rule that parents are not responsible for their children after they reach the “age of maturity.” 

The case of Weitzman v. Weitzman, established that trial courts must consider modifications of support obligations under certain circumstances, one of those being college expense.

In Weitzman, Risa Weitzman, now Smith, appealed from an order denying her motion to have her ex-husband, Gerald Weitzman, reimburse her for his proportionate share of college expenses. At time they were due, Risa advanced Gerald’s share on behalf of their two children. She further appealed two other provisions from the order that denied her application for reimbursement of medical and dental insurance expenses. Because there was a previous order entered four years ago that denied Risa’s motion for somewhat similar relief, the trial court determined that it did not have the authority to consider the present motion. Risa argued that the previous order relied upon was both cryptic and ambiguous.

Risa and Gerald divorced on April 10, 1973. The final judgment of divorce contained a property settlement agreement and was supplemented six months later. According to the supplemental judgment, Gerald was to pay $ 25 a week for each of his two children “until emancipation,” to provide Blue Cross-Blue Shield medical insurance or its equivalent, and be responsible for medical and dental insurance. Conversely, the judgment required Risa to give Gerald advance notice of expenses, and to allow him to pick the physician or dentist examining the children.

The Appellate Division found that while the factual record was uninformative, it was clear that both Risa and Gerald went through hard financial struggles after the divorce. Risa was forced to accept public assistance for some time. Similarly, Gerald was only occasionally employed. In the fall of 1982, Risa sought a court order to have Gerald pay his proportionate share of college expenses for the oldest child who mad studied at Trenton State College. Then on December 17, 1982, the court granted an order for discovery. The case proceeded at a sluggish pace, and finally in December 1985 the parties filed cross-motions. Risa sought the proportionate share of their daughter’s college expenses, and Gerald sought to suspend payment of child support all together. The Appellate Division stated the resolution of the aforementioned motions was unclear. The trial court never held oral argument or even conducted an evidentiary hearing. The only evidence present on appeal was the ambiguous order signed by the Family Part judge that denied Gerald’s motion to suspend child support payments. The order was drafted by Risa’s attorney, and while it contained a provision that required Gerald to pay a proportionate share of college expenses, there were also portions crossed out by the court. Risa’s counsel contended that there was no appeal from that order because Gerald had moved to Texas and then California, and he was financially unable to contribute anyway.

Risa had remarried and provided for her daughters’ education herself. The younger daughter had eventually graduated high school and started study at William Paterson College. While she did leave college after three semesters, she still accrued $3,556 in college expenses. The older daughter eventually graduated from Trenton State College. Risa paid a total of $ 20,585 to put her through college.

Three months after her eldest daughter’s graduation, Risa filed a motion. She sought reimbursement by Gerald for his proportionate share of the children’s college expenses, reimbursement for payments made to secure medical insurance as a result of Gerald’s failure to comply with his obligation under the supplemental divorce judgment, reimbursement of past due medical and dental expenses, and payment of arrearages. To support her motion, Risa stressed that Gerald’s mother had recently passed away and left him with the bulk of her estate. The value of the estate was estimated to be in excess of several hundred thousand dollars. Even though the value of the arrearages was stipulated and paid, the trial court still denied the rest of Risa’s motion. The trial court relied upon the prior order denying Risa’s motion to compel Gerald to contribute to the children’s college education.

The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that the trial court was wrong when it determined that the prior order entered four years ago had any effect upon the issues raised in the current motion. Specifically, the prior order did not contain any mention of Gerald’s obligation to maintain Blue Cross-Blue Shield insurance coverage on behalf of the children. Furthermore, it did not mention any amounts Risa had paid for the children’s orthodontics. While the record reflected that the parties did indeed negotiate over these matters, the prior order was still devoid of anything that suggested that these issues had ever been brought up in court. The Appellate Division found no proof that the order of January 16, 1984 stripped the court of any authority to rehear the matter. First, no oral argument was held, nor was any evidentiary hearing conducted. Moreover, no statement of reasons supported the order. While the judge did cross out the portion of the order requiring Gerald to pay a proportionate share of the daughter’s college expenses, that does not mean this action was intended to resolve the issue of college expenses for all time.

The mere fact that Risa failed to appeal the prior order, or seek clarification from the trial court does not preclude her filing the motion at issue. Because Gerald had left the state, it would have been unreasonable to require Risa to file a costly appeal. Also, while it would have been wise for Risa to seek clarification from the court at the time of the order, her actions, or lack thereof, did not amount to a voluntary waiver of her refiling right.

Finally, the Appellate Division found that the trial court’s decision was not consistent with the broad equitable powers of trial judges to review and modify alimony and support orders at any time. This right is enumerated in New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23, which provides that “orders . . . may be revised and altered by the court from time to time as circumstances may require.” In paramount case of Lepis v. Lepis, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that because of this authority, trial courts may review and modify alimony and support orders upon a showing of “changed circumstances.” Then, the court will consider both the finances of both parents, and the best interests of the children and determine a solution that is equitable to both parties.

A supporting spouse’s support obligation is primarily determined by the quality of life during marriage, and the continued maintenance of the standard of living the dependent spouse and children had become accustomed to. As a general principle, a modification to the same obligation may be warranted in certain changed circumstances. A few examples of valid changed circumstances include: an increase in living cost; increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income; illness or disability; the dependent spouse living with another partner;  or employment by the dependent spouse. Courts have consistently rejected requests for modification for temporary changes in circumstances, or expected changes that have not occurred. An increase in children’s needs due to maturing has also been held to justify an increase in support as long as the supporting parent is financially able.

The panel made sure to state that “changed circumstances” would only be considered if made in good faith, and should not be used repeatedly for the same grievance. Regardless, the Appellate Division was satisfied that Risa’s motion presented genuine issues that needed to be addressed by the trial court. They reversed the order and sent the case to be heard again at trial level. In their reasoning, the Appellate Division recognized the danger in retrospectively changing a spouse’s support obligation based on increased financial ability. Still equity and justice strongly supported Risa’s right to reimbursement for the amounts she paid towards her children’s college expenses. According to New Jersey Statute 9:2-4, parents are “equally charged with the children’s care, nurture, education and welfare.” This obligation usually terminates upon the emancipation of the child. Emancipation is the conclusion of the dependent relationship between a parent and child. Until this relationship is over, a parent is legally obligated to provide support for his or her child. An emancipation can occur when the child marries, enlistment in military service, by court order, or by reaching the appropriate age.

The privilege of parenthood brings with it the duty to provide your child with a necessary education. What constitutes a necessary education has changed considerably. In Newburgh v. Arrigo, the Supreme Court noted that while a college education might have been only for the elite in the past, today higher education is available for practically everyone. More importantly, the Supreme Court found that in general, parents should contribute to the higher education of their children if they are financially capable to do so.

Please never hesitate to contact my office in order to learn more about how my law firm may help you.