Paying College Costs After Divorce in New Jersey

New Jersey courts have held that, in general, financially capable parents should contribute to the costs of their children’s higher education.

Do Parents Have to Pay for College After Divorce?

New Jersey courts generally view college education as a necessity. The recent trend in New Jersey has been to require parents to pay the college costs for their children.

In evaluating whether parents should contribute toward the cost of their children’s higher education, courts must consider the complete set of facts of each case. In addition, courts will analyze the following factors:

  • whether the parent would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education if they still lived together
  • the background values and goals of the parent and the reasonableness of the expectation that the child attain higher education
  • the amount sought by the child for the cost of higher education
  • the ability of the parent to pay that cost
  • the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child
  • the financial resources of both parents
  • the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education
  • the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust
  • the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation
  • the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans
  • the child's relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance, and
  • the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

If there is an ongoing dispute as to who should pay for college, the court will schedule a “plenary” (full) hearing. Parents will need to exchange “discovery” (relevant information and documents), including their tax returns and W-2s, and they will need to prepare a Case Information Sheet, which includes a complete list of their assets.

At the hearing, the judge will review the evidence and listen to the parents’ testimony. Thereafter, the court will determine each parent’s contribution to college based on the foregoing factors. The court may also determine if any child support orders should be modified (changed).

Isn’t My Child Emancipated at Age 18?

No. Emancipation is the legal act by which a child is released from the control and support of a parent. Practically speaking, this means the child is no longer entitled to financial support.

It’s important to know that turning 18 does not automatically trigger emancipation. In some cases, even children who have turned 18 continue to be dependent on their parents. Similarly, the obligation to continue supporting your child doesn’t automatically end when your child reaches age 18 unless your child support agreement contains a specific provision that says child support ends at age 18. And even then, a court may later decide that you should continue providing some support for college costs.

Without such a provision in your property settlement agreement, termination of support will be determined by New Jersey law. In New Jersey, courts may and often do, order the payment of support and expenses for a child attending college. The mere fact that such a child is over 18 will not prevent a court from ordering that the parent(s) must continue to support the child.

For more information on emancipation, see Emancipation of a Child in New Jersey.

Should my Property Settlement Agreement State who Will Pay for College?

Absolutely. Property settlement agreements and/or judgments of divorce should contain terms that delineate each parent’s obligation to contribute to the children’s college costs. If it doesn’t, you should ask your attorney to include such a provision, before you sign off.

What if my Agreement Doesn’t Mention my Child’s College Education?

Many divorcing spouses leave important provisions out of their property settlement agreements or their judgments of divorce. That’s why it’s a good idea to hire an experienced family law attorney who can review any proposed agreement to make sure your rights are fully protected and the agreement contains all necessary provisions.

Nonetheless, even if there is no provision about college in your agreement or divorce judgment, a court will likely require some contribution to your child’s college costs.

What is the Leading Case Regarding Parental Obligations to Pay for College?

The leading case is Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982). In this case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the parental duty to provide an education to children extends to the responsibility to provide a college education. As a result of this ground-breaking case, New Jersey became the most liberal jurisdiction in the nation in terms of parents’ financial obligations for post-secondary education.

Are there Situations Where a Contribution to College isn’t Warranted?

There are certain situations in which a contribution to college is arguably not warranted. The most obvious situation is when a child is alienated from a parent and refuses all contact despite the parent’s efforts to maintain a relationship. Even though there is no relationship, the child still requests that parent be held responsible for college. A very perplexing question then arises. Is the child who unreasonably refuses to have a relationship with a parent entitled to a contribution to college?

The answer to this dilemma is determined on a case-by-case basis. The Newburgh v. Arrigo case requires courts to consider the “child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals, as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.”

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