Is college education a necessity?
To some, it may still be a matter of debate, but not if you are Judge in a New Jersey divorce court.
In the 1982 groundbreaking case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that a parent’s obligation to provide an education extends through college.
That obligation, however, does not mean the courts can automatically force a parent to pay for a child’s college education.
As always, the difference is in the details.
How is college tuition support determined?
So how do courts evaluate whether parents should contribute toward the cost of their children’s higher education? Each case, of course, comes with its own set of facts.
These are some of the determining factors:
- Would the parent have still contributed if they still lived together?
- What are the background values and goals of the parent?
- How reasonable is the expectation that the child attends college? How committed is the child to attending? How capable?
- How much will it cost for the child to attend college? Is the parent able to pay?
- What are the financial resources of both parents?
- What are the financial resources of the child?
- Will the child be earning income during the school year or on vacation?
- What is the child’s relationship to the paying parent? Do they get along?
- Is the education being requested related to any prior training or the child’s long-term goals?
- Will there be financial aid?
If the involved parents cannot agree on support for college tuition, a full hearing will be scheduled to decide the matter.
Relevant information and documents, such as tax returns and W-2s, will be exchanged. Each parent will also be expected to submit a complete list of assets.
The hearing itself will involve testimony from both sides, followed by a final determination based on the above determining factors.
Sometimes, the court may even change the child support agreement.
College tuition support as part of your Final Judgement
The final judgment, or property settlement agreement, should contain terms that clearly define each parent’s obligation to contribute to children’s college costs. This way, when the child gets to college-age, the obligation requirements are already understood.
These types of provisions, their wording, and their inclusion in property settlement agreements are among the very reasons why anyone considering a divorce must hire an experienced New Jersey family law attorney. These provisions can be complex and difficult to appreciate how it may affect your life down the road.
Can New Jersey Parents Be Forced To Pay 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.
The case that decided this was widely publicized and legally complex. It involved a long-standing divorce, an estranged child, and legal action brought on by that child against her parents.
The story is complex, but the outcome is meaningful for separated NJ parents facing college tuition.
MAURA RICCI MAURA MCGARVEY v. MICHAEL RICCI
In 2012, 18-year-old Caitlyn Ricci graduated high school in Washington Township, NJ. The following semester, she enrolled in Montclair State University with her divorced parents, Michael Ricci and Maura McGarvey (who divorced when Caitlyn was 4) each paying an agreed-upon part of her tuition.
While attending Montclair State University, Caitlyn was living in her mother’s home.
Shortly after starting school Caitlyn was offered the opportunity to enroll in an internship program with Disney. Again, both her parents supported her choice and financially supported her move to Florida. Unfortunately, Caitlyn was expelled just one month later for hosting a dorm party and underage drinking.
She returned to her mother’s house.
In early 2013, at age 19, she moved out of her mother’s house (and into her paternal grandparent’s house) of her own free will, citing disagreements with her mother. Because Caitlyn was not living with either parent, both Michael and Maura agreed Caitlyn was emancipated and child support (including college tuition) was no longer required. A consent decree was issued officially ending the support.
In response, Caitlyn started legal action to have child support (including college tuition) continued. A judge agreed and college tuition was ordered to continue for the 2013-2014 academic year. At the time, the court’s opinion was that Caitlyn was not emancipated (despite not living with either parent).
The case further unravels when Caitlyn was accepted to attend Temple University in Philadelphia, PA starting in 2014. Caitlyn expected her parents to cover the increased cost of the private university above the money already allocated to attend the NJ State school for that year. Her parent’s, citing the nearly $16,000 tuition cost, attempted to have the matter decided in the courts.
Initially, a lower court agreed with Caitlyn.
Unable to bear the increased cost of the private university, and citing the fact that they had no participation in Caitlyn’s decision on where to attend school, or how, her parents appealed.
Through a long series of court orders and appeals that spanned a few years, the court process eventually concluded in a 2017 decision that stated “a parent cannot be viewed as a ‘wallet’ and deprived of involvement in the college decision-making process.”
Caitlyn, now 23, chose to let the matter rest and did not appeal.
What does this mean?
The eventual outcome of MAURA RICCI MAURA MCGARVEY v. MICHAEL RICCI set the standard that divorced parents are not automatically required to pay for college tuition, in all cases regardless of facts.
So while New Jersey is considered very liberal in their requirement for parents to pay for supported children’s higher education, there are now considerations for special circumstances.
College tuition and child support requirements can be very complex and costly if your rights are not properly protected, and you do not have experienced New Jersey family law representation.