Courts in New Jersey have long held that a college education is necessary for a child, and that financially capable parents should fulfill this need by contributing to the cost of a wide range of college-related expenses including, but not limited to: tuition, room and board, books,and mandatory fees. As a result, and in a manner akin to child support, parents cannot bargain away the obligation to provide for a child’s college education during divorce proceedings.
In determining how much each parent should pay for college, family judge’s generally reason that neither parent will be expected to contribute more to the cost than he or she can reasonably afford. Notably, the law no longer limits or caps a parent’s mandatory contribution to the cost of a child attending an in-state public college. Thus, requiring parents to contribute the full amount of an out-of-state college or private university will not necessarily be prohibited. Rather, as in many areas of family law, each situation will be analyzed on its own specific set of facts and circumstances.
Specifically, a court will analyze several relevant factors that focus on the subject family’s dynamic and financial circumstances. These factors include:
1. Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have
contributed toward the cost 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
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
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
10. The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and
11. The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual
affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and
12. The relationship of the education requested to any prior training
and to the overall long-range goals of the child.
The issue of college contributions can be determined at the time of the divorce or, especially if the child is of a younger age and/or the future holds a degree of financial uncertainty, it can remain an open issue to be determined when college is set to commence. Agreements often provide what specific expenses will be covered even if the contribution allocation abides the event, and also address how existing college accounts (such as a 529 account), if any, will be utilized and/or established in connection with this issue.
If parties are unable to reach an agreement and the matter proceeds to litigation, a court will generally order the exchange of relevant information, including, but not limited to: extensive financial disclosures, and subsequently hold a trial during which the judge will hear testimony and review evidence in order to reach a final determination. If college has already commenced and payments have been made in connection therewith, a parent can be required to contribute on a retroactive basis.
Parents often ask what happens to a child support obligation if a child is away at college and expenses that would normally fall under the child support obligation, such as room and board, are now being separately treated as mandatory college expenses. In New Jersey, the Child Support Guidelines apply to children who are younger than 18 years of age or more than 18 years of age but still attending high school or a similar secondary educational institution. Once an unemancipated child attends college, child support is to be set based on the child’s needs and abilities in conjunction with the parents’ financial circumstances.
Robert A. Epstein, Esq. is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s family law group and practices throughout New Jersey.
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