When a married couple decides to divorce, one of the many issues that often comes up is how they’ll pay for their kids’ education. New Jersey’s Superior Court recently took on this issue in a case concerning a young woman’s costs for medical school. As the Court explained, the answer varies based on the individual circumstances of each case, what the former spouses agreed to do, and who they agree to have resolve any differences.

0226141001617905230.jpgWife filed for divorce from Husband in 1996, following 14 years of marriage in which the couple had three kids. The legal proceedings stretched on for several years, during which no less than eight different judges issued a total of 30 orders. The spouses later agreed to arbitrate all of the issues related to alimony, child support, and the expenses of the children’s education. They also agreed to be bound by the arbitrator’s decision, subject to limited court review.

The arbitrator eventually found that the couple’s oldest daughter was “emancipated” in October 2009 because she was 23 years old at the time and was working full time. The arbitrator therefore reduced Husband’s child support obligation by one third. The arbitrator also said, however, that Husband would still be responsible for half of Daughter’s graduate school expenses if she decided to continue her education. The state family court disagreed. It voided the part of the arbitrator’s order in which he found that each parent was responsible for half of Daughter’s graduate school expenses. Although Daughter was in medical school by the time the court issued its ruling, the judge said the arbitrator exceeded his authority by forcing the parents to cover expenses after Daughter became emancipated in 2009.

 That’s when the Superior Court’s appellate division weighed in. The Court sided with the arbitrator, finding that he acted within his authority in requiring the parents to split Daughter’s graduate school expenses. It noted that New Jersey courts give “considerable deference” to arbitration orders because state public policy “favors arbitration as a means of settling disputes that otherwise would be litigated in a court.”

In this case, the Court said the scope of the arbitrator’s authority was laid out in Husband and Wife’s agreement to arbitrate certain issues. That agreement specifically gave the arbitrator the power to determine the “allocation of expenses for college and graduate/professional school for the three children,” according to the Court. “Nothing in the consent order hinged the arbitrability of that issue on whether the children were emancipated or unemancipated,” the Court said. “Thus, neither the arbitrator nor the appellate arbitrator exceeded his authority…”

The Court also declined to consider Husband’s argument that the arbitration award violated laws developed in the courts that have previously found parents not responsible for the education expenses of an emancipated child. “Absent an agreement by the parties to an expanded standard of judicial review, courts must apply the standard of judicial review normally applicable to private arbitration, under which a court may not vacate an award even though it might be based on a mistake of law,” the Court said. As a result, the Court remanded the case back to the family court with instructions to order Husband to pay half of Daughter’s education expenses.

The New Jersey child support and custody lawyers at Helfand & Associates have more than 100 years of combined experience representing clients in a wide range of divorce, child custody, and support cases. Our lawyers work diligently to ease the stress on clients in what can be a trying process by building the strongest possible cases for the people whom we represent. Tanya N. Helfand, Esq., is a Certified Matrimonial Attorney of New Jersey.

Our offices are conveniently located in Whippany and New York City. We are happy to offer clients a consultation in family law and other cases. Contact us online, call our New Jersey office at 973-539-1000, or call our New York City office at (646) 213-9053 to set up an appointment with one of our attorneys.