Rules for Planning Your Child's College Education

By: John Nachlinger
Last Update: October 31, 2016

It is that time of year when high school seniors are determining where to go to college. Four-year university or community college? New Jersey public school or an expensive private school? If you are an intact family, you are probably determining how much the family can afford and making decisions about college, free from any outside influence (aside from the federal government telling you how much money in terms of grants and loans you can expect). However, what if you are divorced or have a child with someone that you have never been married to? To begin with, be very thankful you live in New Jersey, as you live in one of the few states that compels parents that are divorced or have never been married to pay for their children’s college education.

The entire college process can be very frustrating for child and parent alike. Add to it the issues surrounding getting the other parent to pay for part of the expenses, and it can be a very difficult time indeed. NJ Family Law attorneys get many calls from potential and former clients about college expenses. Whether you have addressed college in your settlement agreement at the time of divorce or if you have nothing in writing dealing with college expenses, there are some simple rules you should follow when you enter your child’s college selection process:

  1. Communicate extensively with the other parent. Failure to communicate can be grounds to minimize the other parent’s obligation to contribute. For example, if your child goes to a private school, such as Seton Hall or Columbia, and the other parent is kept in the dark, do not be surprised if his or her obligation is capped, or worse, eliminated altogether.
  2. Do not forget to consider the full cost of college attendance. Many only consider the tuition, room and board, meal plan and fees on the tuition statement when looking at college expenses. Do not forget the cost of books, supplies for the dorm room set-up, computers, transportation to and from school, and spending money while at school. College always costs more than anticipated and the custodial parent is usually left paying for all of the things the parties neglected to include among college expenses.
  3. If the other parent objects to the choice of college, immediately contact a family law attorney for guidance. Once an objection is made, we must determine if it is a good faith objection, such as cost beyond the financial means of the parties or a choice beyond the educational means of the student, or if it is a bad faith objection and a court proceeding needs to follow.
  4. If there is no objection to your child’s choice of school, get the other parent’s consent in writing, both in terms of the school choice and how the expenses are going to be split. We often encounter cases of the other parent “verbally agreeing” to an expensive school, only to later find that parent claiming no such agreement exist. Do not take any chances when literally tens of thousands of dollars are at stake, not to mention the financial stability of your child post-graduation.
  5. Do not wait to contact a New Jersey Family Law attorney until May or June of your child’s senior year of high school. One of the common mistakes made by custodial parents is waiting to address college with the other parent until well into the Spring of the child’s senior year of high school. By the time most attorneys speak to parents, there is little time to get into court before the first tuition payments are due. The process to get this type of dispute before a judge can take as little as 24 days, but usually take 30-90 days. Moreover, the court may need to schedule a plenary hearing (a mini-Trial) to decide the issue of college expenses, which could push out the time for a decision many months. Do not wait if there is a dispute, or if you think there is a dispute, contact a New Jersey Family Law attorney.

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