Divorced Parents’ Obligation To Pay For College Costs And Support For Their Children

In the State of New Jersey, divorced parents can be responsible for the costs of their children’s college.  In addition to college costs, such as tuition, books, and application fees, child support may still be ordered for other items that are not directly college costs.

Once a child goes away to college, the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are not used, but that does not mean that no additional child support is needed. There are other expenses and the child may be home for the summer, which has required a parent to keep up a residence and provide for other expenses when the student is home.

In some cases, the court may apply the Guidelines to adult children who commute to a community college because the change in schools is not that great a change in circumstances.  There is not a specific formula for calculating child support when a child goes away to college.

The Court will first decide whether the parents must pay for college.  The case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982) addressed the issue of paying for college tuition and law school.  The following factors were considered: (1) whether the parent if still living with the child would have contributed towards the costs of the requested higher education; (2) the effect of the background values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education; (3) the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education; (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 parents;  (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 on vacation; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans; (11) the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and (12) the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

If the criteria for attending college is met, the Court will then apply N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a), which states: “In determining the amount to be paid by a parent for support of the child and the period during which the duty of support is owed, the Court in those cases not governed by court rule shall consider, but not be limited to, the following factors: (1) Needs of the child; (2) Standard of living and economic circumstances of each parent; (3) All sources of income and assets of each parent; (4) Earning ability of each parent, including educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, custodial responsibility for children including the cost of providing child care and the length of time and cost of each parent to obtain training or experience for appropriate employment; (5) Need and capacity of the child for education, including higher education; (6) Age and health of the child and each parent; P.L.2014, CHAPTER 42 2 (7) Income, assets and earning ability of the child; (8) Responsibility of the parents for the Court-ordered support of others; (9) Reasonable debts and liabilities of each child and parent; and (10) Any other factors the Court may deem relevant.

If there has been no preparation for college costs, the parties or their child will seek court intervention.  At the time of divorce, many settlement agreements contain terms that later, when the time comes for the children to go to college, they will then contribute based on their respective ability to pay after the child has applied for loans, grants and scholarships.  When the time comes, some parents have not prepared for this and the parties end up mediating and litigating this issue.  The parents will have to fill out FAFSA forms and disclose their income and assets for the college to offer financial aid.  Non-cooperation of a parent with the FAFSA disclosure is extremely harmful to a child and in no way alleviates the parent’s burden under New Jersey law.

The Courts will order college costs after a thorough review of the child’s eligibility and aptitude for college and the parent’s income and assets.  Clearly it is advisable to prepare long before the day of enrollment if the children of divorced parents have college potential.  It is also advisable to work in a cooperative fashion with a college planner who can evaluate the child’s aptitude and goals as well as the financial resources available to maximize the benefits for the young person.  Spending a tuition on legal costs is generally less prudent if it can be avoided.  If it cannot be avoided, Helfand & Associates can help.

Helfand & Associates are very experienced matrimonial attorneys.  A free half-hour consultation is available.  Please call 973-428-0800.