It’s the time of year when high school graduates begin preparing for their new lives as college freshmen. The stakes are high for these young adults, but they are also high for parents who must foot the bill. With today’s soaring tuition costs, paying for college can be a challenge for any family. For divorced parents, there are added layers of complexity. What happens when a divorced parent can’t or won’t contribute to tuition payments, or disagrees with the child’s college choice? For guidance, we can look to the handful of significant cases from recent decades in which the courts have grappled with the issue of parental college contributions.
College Contributions and the Law
New Jersey courts can order divorced parents to pay ongoing child support, including a contribution to post-secondary tuition and fees, for children who have graduated from high school and are pursuing higher education. This type of support is not governed by the child support formula and is instead calculated according to the factors set out in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a. Parents often agree during divorce settlements to share college expenses according to their respective incomes, but agreements reached when children are young cannot always predict a family’s financial situation at college-decision time. Like child support awards, a parent can ask the court to modify the agreement to contribute to college costs, but modifying that agreement would ultimately be up to the judge.
The leading New Jersey case on college contributions, Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), states that, “in general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students” (at 544). The Newburgh court set out the following nonexclusive factors to be taken into account when evaluating contribution claims:
(1) whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward 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 parent’s ability 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. While Newburgh is the leading case in New Jersey, the expectation that divorced parents would contribute to college expenses did not begin with Newburgh. Previously, the case of Nebel v. Nebel, 103 N.J. Super. 216 (App. Div. 1968), limited the obligation to a share of the cost of a quality state university, establishing the so-called “Rutgers rule.” By enumerating a lengthy list of factors, the Newburgh case broadened the courts’ ability to determine parental contributions. Courts began to look at each family’s situation on a case-by-case basis, evaluating the reasonableness of a child’s college choice and the availability of all potential financial resources, including parental contributions. As a result, non-custodial parents frequently focused on factor 11, objecting to paying for the education of adult children who had either chosen not to continue any kind of relationship with the parent, or had declined to enter into discussions with that parent regarding educational plans.
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