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Can a Court Force You to Pay For Your Child’s College, Even If You and Your Former Spouse Agree Not to Do So?

Mar 3, 2017 | Written by: William W. Goodwin, Jr., Esq. |

Approximately 35 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an often-cited opinion in which it held "the privilege of parenthood carries with it the duty to assure a necessary education for children." Newburgh v. Arrigo 88 N.J. 529 (1982). The Newburgh court established a series of factors for courts to consider when assessing whether to compel one or both parents to contribute to the costs of college and, in some cases, even graduate school. Generally speaking, these include the child's aptitude and educational interests, the parents' financial circumstances, and the relationship between the child and each parent.

This legal authority possessed by the courts of our state is hardly universal. Indeed, our western neighbor, Pennsylvania, forbids Judges from ordering divorced or divorcing parents to pay for post-­secondary educational expenses, no matter how compelling the facts.

This potential obligation to pay for college is interwoven with the concept of "emancipation." Emancipation is a label associated with the obligation, or not, to continue to provide financial support for a child. Such support might include contributions to educational expenses. Simply stated, a parent's obligation to provide financial support for a child remains in place until a child is "emancipated." A child is presumed not to be emancipated until he/she reaches the age of 18. Conversely, a child is presumed to be emancipated upon reaching the age of 18. However, presumptions are just that, and there are exceptions to both rules. The most common is the situation where a "child" who is age 18 or older is not emancipated because he/she is a full-time college student.

The dispute over whether a parent is going to be ordered to pay for college almost universally arises in the context of an application filed by one parent against the other. For example, mom (former wife) files an application to compel dad (former husband) to pay for college. The Court then must decide the issue based on the "Newburgh factors" and related legal principles.

Until recently, we had very little guidance on what a court would do if faced with an application by an "adult" child seeking to compel both parents to pay for her college expenses where those parents had already signed a formal agreement not to pay for college. That fact pattern presented itself recently in the reported Appellate Division decision in Ricci v. Ricci.

In Ricci, the parties divorced when their daughter was 4. At age 19, the child moved out of her mother's home and moved in with her grandparents. There was a disagreement as to the circumstances surrounding this event, although no one disputed there was a falling out between mother and daughter. At that point, both parents submitted a consent order emancipating their daughter, and thereby agreeing neither would have to pay for her college educational expenses. The child then filed an application to intervene in the divorce case and to ask the court to order both parents to contribute to her college expenses.

Without holding a hearing, the Trial Court obligated each parent to pay 50% of those costs. The parents appealed. The Appellate Division held that the Trial Court should not have entered its order without holding a hearing to determine the facts, including the reason why there was an estrangement between the child and her parents, and why she no longer lived with either. Setting this aside, the most important lesson in this decision is that a child has the right to seek parental contributions to his/her post-secondary educational expenses even when the parents have already formally agreed to the contrary. This conclusion flows directly from the general proposition that a parent does not have the authority to waive the rights of his or her child to be supported until that child is emancipated.

William W. Goodwin, Jr., Esq. is certified by the NJ Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Attorney. He is also qualified as a Mediator in the field of Family Law under the New Jersey Court rules, and he is trained in Collaborative Divorce. Contact Mr. Goodwin at 908-735-5161 or via email.

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