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Does a Parent’s “Strained” Relationship with a Child Obviate the Parent’s Obligation to Contribute to College?

Jan 29, 2019 | Written by: Diana N. Fredericks, Esq. |

Not according to the Appellate Division in the recent case of Hamilton v. Hamilton[1].  In this January 22, 2019 decision, the appellate division concluded that the father would be required to pay 60% of the child’s college expenses despite a strained relationship with the child. 

Court’s Analysis

These parties were married on May 17, 1992, and divorced on March 17, 2008. One daughter, A.H., was born of the marriage.  The March 17, 2008 final judgment of divorce (FJOD) incorporated the property settlement agreement (PSA) reached by the parties.  In the PSA, the parties stipulated as follows: “It is the intention of the parties that the minor child attend college or other post-high school education institution.  The parties agree that the child shall be responsible for applying for financial aid, including but not limited to, student loans, grants, work-study and scholarships.  Once all financial aid has been exhausted, the parties shall divide the costs of college based on their incomes when the child attends college.  The parties further agree that when the child is ready to start applying to colleges [t]hat they shall confer with one another to discuss their respective financial abilities at the time with regards to college.” 

On November 14, 2014, the trial court entered an order directing Donna (the wife) "to fully communicate with [Bernard] with regards to [A.H.], and her college application process.  The parties shall abide by the terms of the [FJOD and PSA] when it comes to choosing and paying for [A.H.]'s college education."

On July 12, 2015, Donna moved to compel Bernard (the husband) to pay a portion of A.H.'s college expenses.  In the moving papers, Donna notified Bernard for the first time that A.H. was accepted at both Farleigh Dickinson University (FDU), at a cost of $27,392 after reduction by grants, scholarships, work study, and federal loans, and Johnson & Wales University, at a cost of $20,542 after reduction by grants, scholarships, and federal loans.  She informed Bernard that she and A.H. selected Farleigh Dickinson and A.H. was to enroll in August 2015.  On August 21, 2015, Bernard opposed the motion, arguing that he should be relieved of paying for A.H.'s college expenses because Donna had not consulted him in the college selection process.  The court directed Bernard and Donna to submit information with respect to their incomes by May 1, 2016, in order to assess each parent's share of A.H.'s college expenses for the fall 2016 semester.  The court further ordered that Bernard and A.H. begin reunification therapy within thirty days.  

Bernard thereafter moved for reconsideration of the December 2, 2016 order.  On February 10, 2017, the trial court denied the motion and found Bernard in violation of the December 2, 2016 order due to his failure to submit his financial information.  The court further ordered that Bernard submit his financial information no later than February 24, 2017, and that his failure to do so would result in the court imputing his income and setting his share of A.H.'s college expenses and tuition accordingly.  On March 22, 2017, the trial court found Bernard in violation of its three prior orders to submit his financial information.   As a result, the court undertook an analysis of his responsibility for A.H.'s college expenses based on imputed income.

In the court's statement of reasons accompanying the order, it analyzed the twelve factors set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).   The court cited the PSA, which stated the parties' intention for A.H. to attend college, and emphasized that Bernard would have contributed toward A.H.'s college expenses if she was still living with him.  In addition, the court noted that A.H. had the ability to earn income during the school year and summer break.  The court found that Donna's annual income was $43,835.  Because Bernard had not submitted his financial information, the court relied on prior submissions and prior testimony to impute income to him.   Noting that Bernard was responsible for fifty-five percent of A.H.'s private secondary school tuition in the PSA, the court determined that he would be responsible for sixty percent of her college expenses.   The court concluded that sixty percent was reasonable, as the cost of FDU was substantially lessened by financial aid, totaling $10,431.31 in the 2016 fall semester.

The court held that Bernard's strained relationship with A.H. did not obviate his obligation to pay his share of her college expenses. The court found that Donna does not prevent Bernard from communicating with A.H. and that Bernard has the ability to provide guidance and advice to his childAdditionally, the court ordered reunification therapy between Bernard and A.H., but did not make participation in therapy a condition for Bernard's responsibility for A.H.'s college expenses.  

The court concluded that a relationship between a noncustodial parent and a child is not a prerequisite to the court ordering the noncustodial parent to pay a portion of the child's college expenses.

Although his brief does not cite Rule 4:49-2, or any legal precedent interpreting it, Bernard argued that the trial court erred when it denied his motion for reconsideration because he should be excused from paying any portion of A.H.'s college expenses in light of Donna's failure to include him in the college selection process.  In addition, Bernard argued that the trial court erred when it did not make his obligation to contribute to A.H.'s college expenses conditioned on the child's participation in reunification therapy.   Finally, he argued that the trial court failed adequately to consider the factors set forth in Newburgh when allocating parental responsibility for A.H.'s college expenses.

Contrary to Bernard's arguments, "[a] relationship between a non-custodial parent and a child is not required for the custodial parent or the child to ask the non-custodial parent for financial assistance to defray college expenses." Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 546 (2006)[2].  The trial court acted within its discretion when it declined Bernard's request to make A.H.'s participation in reunification therapy a condition of his obligation to pay a portion of her college expenses.  

Does This Relate to My Case?

Maybe.  It will depend on the facts and circumstances of your particular matter.  However, there are several interesting points worth noting:

  • First, it is important to note that this is an unpublished decision and, therefore, it is not binding.
  • Second, Bernard may have made certain procedural mistakes that jeopardized his ability to be heard on these issues. Had Bernard complied with the trial court, a different conclusion may have been possible.  This is an important point to take away from this case: DO NOT IGNORE COURT ORDERS!  Even if you disagree with the Court or believe an error was made, it is important to respond appropriately, as there are procedures to do so, but ignoring an Order may lead to unimaginable consequences. 
  • Third, when crafting Marital Settlement Agreements, it is important to be specific, if possible, and address what will happen if one parent does not have a relationship with a child, particularly if there are known issues at the time of the divorce settlement.

College issues can be very complex and have serious consequences.  To the extent that you have any questions or concerns regarding these issues, please seek counsel.  If you would like a consultation with one of the certified matrimonial attorneys at Gebhardt & Kiefer, please contact us at 908-735-5161.

[1] Unpublished Superior Court of New Jersey Decision, Hamilton v. Hamilton Docket No. A-4980-16T4.



Diana Fredericks, Esq., is a partner with Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC and devotes her practice solely to family law matters.  She is a Certified Matrimonial Attorney and was named to the NJ Super Lawyers Rising Stars list in the practice of family law by Thomson Reuters in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, and to the New Leaders of the Bar list by the New Jersey Law Journal in 2015.  Contact Ms. Fredericks for a consultation at 908-735-5161 or via email.

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