Can New Jersey Parents Be Forced To Pay College Tuition?

college tuition

The short answer is ‘sometimes’, but not without being involved in their child’s decision-making process when it comes to higher education. In a February 9thruling made by the Appellate Division, it was decided that divorced parents Michael Ricci and Maura McGarvey were not legally obligated to pay for their estranged daughter’s college tuition.

Twenty-three year old Caitlyn Ricci graduated from high school in 2012. In early 2013, she had moved out of her parent’s house. By then, she had already enrolled in Temple University without her parents’ blessing, after having already begun to incur college costs at Gloucester County College. When the case began, she was 19 years old. Ricci’s claim was that her parents were obliged to help her pay for the college debt she had accrued. Were they? To answer that question, we have three of our own.

Were the parents involved in the decision-making process?

Ricci’s parents were not consulted when she enrolled in Temple University. The opinion of the Appellate Court was that a lower court judge had failed to examine the question of emancipation. Instead, a child had been allowed to choose a college without regard to cost or consent from parents.

Could the parents afford it?

The original outcome was based on a 1982 decision that found divorced parents were obligated to pay for a child’s college education. The parents appealed the decision based on their opinion that being forced to pay was unconstitutional. It probably didn’t help that their daughter’s out-of-state tuition at Temple added up to $16,000.

Was the “child” emancipated?

In her case, Caitlyn was living with her mother on the condition that she take some classes and follow some rules at home. After taking some classes at community college, she was asked to leave due to an underage drinking infraction. She returned home briefly, but then moved in with her paternal grandparents. According to her parents, she broke the rules. According to Caitlyn, she was kicked out.

​Read Changing Custody Agreements In New Jersey

Neither of these opinions equate to emancipation. Ricci’s parents considered her emancipated when she moved out but that decision is not up to them. There must be a detailed hearing. In the end, the Appellate Court referred the case back to a lower court to decide on the matter of emancipation.

What was achieved by the February decision? The ruling states that “a parent cannot be viewed as a ‘wallet’ and deprived of involvement in the college decision-making process.” However, that depends on the circumstances and whether or not the child is emancipated. Caitlyn Ricci’s attorney had no comment on the ruling but her mother’s lawyer believes that she does not intend to go any further and has reconciled with her parents. If you have questions regarding emancipation or related matters, please call our officeand make an appointment.

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