College Costs And The Alienation/Relationship Of The Child With The Paying Parent

If parents cannot agree on various factors involving their children they eventually may make applications to the court for decisions in highly personal and sensitive disputes.

The courts in New Jersey are required to address specific factors identified in Statutes and Case Law in making decisions concerning Parenting Time, child support, college contribution and myriad issues concerning children of divorced or separated parents. If the parents are unable to cooperate for many reasons the court will often seek to first have the parties mediate their dispute and come to a settlement or may appoint a Parent Coordinator to assist them in communicating.

A basic premise supported by psychologists and mental health professionals is that it is in the children’s best interest to have both parents in their lives after divorce. When parents disagree about this, it can be for many different reasons which are written about and documented in motions and trials.

The children are in the middle and the parents may be litigating against each other for years over issues like an extra week of vacation time, shared travel for pick up and drop off for parenting time, and contribution to college tuition. These issues are impacted by emotional elements arising from the divorce and the litigation can expose old resentments and bring out allegations that may require experts to be appointed by the court to make recommendations.

A scenario which has occurred enough times to result in several reported cases is the child is reaching college age and parents are faced with the expense. One parent asserts that the child has been alienated and has no relationship with him/or her and therefore he/she should not have to pay for college. The other parent may fully deny alienation and assert that the noncustodial parent has caused the breakdown in the relationship him or herself with the child.

In the State of New Jersey a child is not emancipated if he/she is attending College as a full time student. There are twelve factors listed in the most cited case of Newburgh v. Arrigo which the court addresses in cases where there is a dispute over payment for college. One factor is the relationship of the child with the paying parent. A poor relationship is certainly a factor in these cases but does not automatically negate a parent’s responsibility to pay for a child’s college and ongoing support.

There are obviously many different kinds of relationships a child can have with a parent. The parent being asked to contribute may assert that he/she/ has no relationship with the child and that he/she has been alienated and should not have to pay. The parent of a child asking for contribution may have to show how he/she tried to involve the other parent in college choices; may have to show participation in reunification therapy; may have to draw upon printed texts and evidence that efforts have been made to build a relationship between the parent and child.

The court may interview the child. If the child is an adult he or she may intervene directly in the case.

A parent being asked to pay may ask the court to order reunification therapy. It would seem to be a constructive step in repairing a broken relationship. A child, through no fault of his or her own, may not want reunification therapy. If there is evidence of a parents inability to relate or failure to correct and comprehend the adult child’s feelings, the parent may need an evaluation first before reunification therapy is ordered. For example, in divorces where alcoholism and other conduct negatively affecting the family has occurred reunification may be inappropriate.

If a relationship can be established where the child has a relationship with both parents, it is a goal toward the child’s best interest.

The court can order that the parent and child be evaluated and then take the expert’s recommendation as to whether reunification therapy is appropriate.

If a court finds that a child has been alienated by a parent it can Order that no college contribution shall be made. This is a very high burden to prove however.

A finding of alienation, this would be the result of a long series of applications to the court for enforcement of parenting time and where the proofs show that one parent has heavily involved the child in his/her own dispute with the former spouse.

Newburgh v Arrigo has many other factors that the court must consider when making a ruling about college contribution.

1. Whether the parent if still living with the child would have contributed toward the request for higher education.

2. The effect of the values, background, goals on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education.

3. The amount of the contribution sought.

4. The ability of the parent to pay that cost.

5. The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child.

6. The financial resources of both parties.

7. The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education.

8. The financial resources of the child including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust.

9. The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or vacation.

10. Availability of financial aid in the form of college grants or loans.

11. The child’s relationship to the payor parent including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.

The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long range goals of the child.

College is a major expense which many divorced parents want for their children, but when the time comes they are unwilling to pay or are unprepared. The duty to assure a necessary education to one’s children obligates divorced parents in New Jersey to address this matter. The divorce itself has had financial impact and the parents want their children to be educated. If there is more than one child in college at the same time the costs and stress about payment are even more intense. The relationship of the payor parent (that is not the parent of primary residence) to the child significantly impacts the
parties ability to work toward the best interest of the child for many different reasons  which possibly grew out of the reasons for the divorce.

Realistic constructive solutions can be reached by way of negotiation, mediation and if necessary court action.

Our office has extensive experience in all Matrimonial matters. We handle these college related cases frequently and often they can settle with proper information if handled well in advance of the final college decision. We work with experts also to help resolve if possible. We handled the well-known college education case of Rachel Canning as well.

For a free half hour consultation call Helfand & Associates at 973-428-0800, 0ur experienced matrimonial attorneys, handling all aspects of Family Law.

Tanya N. Helfand, Esq. is a Certified Matrimonial Attorney, a Mediator and Panelist in the Morris and Essex County ESP Programs.  The firm welcomes your questions and inquiries at [email protected]. We handle cases in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Hudson, Union, Somerset, Sussex and other New Jersey counties.