In New Jersey, a child is presumed to be emancipated from his parents at age 18. While married parents are generally under no legal obligation to continue child support after a child turns 18, divorced parents are, including paying for the costs of continued education.
Generally, financial capable, divorced parents must contribute to their children’s college tuition and related payments. The State Supreme Court, in Newburgh v. Arrigo, said that divorce judges should look certain “factors” in determining whether and how much a non-custodial parent should contribute. They include: (1) whether the parent would contribute to the costs of college if still living with the child; (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 sought by the child for college costs; (4) the ability of the parent to pay that amount; (5) the relationship of the requested amount to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child; (6) the financial resources of both parents; (7) the commitment and aptitude of the child towards education; (8) the financial resources of the child; (9) the ability of the child to earn income to help pay for college; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of grants and loans; (11) the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and (12) the relationship of the education to the long-range goals of the child.
That’s a lot to look at, but they will determine whether and to what extent a non-custodial parent will pay for college. One of the “factors” that weighs more than the others is whether the child is estranged from the non-custodial parent, and he or she did not have any chance for input into the college decision process. In Gac v. Gac, the Supreme Court held that the custodial parent or child must discuss college costs with the noncustodial, estranged parent, or file an application to the court, before college expenses are incurred. Without this, it may be unfair to force a noncustodial, estranged parent, particularly those who had made attempts to participate in a child’s life, to pay for education,
An obligation for college costs is even more difficult to judge when a child is estranged from both divorced parents, as was the situation in the infamous 2014 case of Caitlyn Ricci. In that case, a New Jersey trial court held that her divorced parents, both of whom had not spoken to their daughter in years, had to pay her college tuition at out of state Temple University – and also pay her debt to a community college she previously attended, despite their not participating in the college decision process.
There’s always a question of how much a parent should be forced to contribute. Our courts should consider lower cost educational alternatives at either state schools or community colleges, when a parent can’t afford a more expensive private school. Historically, New Jersey courts have followed the “Rutgers rule,” established in Nebel v. Nebel. This limits a parent’s mandatory college contribution to the amount required to send a child to a state school like Rutgers. But use of the “Rutgers rule” as a mandatory standard was contradicted in Finger v. Zenn, which said that a judge is not prevented from ordering a non-custodial parent from paying the cost of a more expensive private university. Confused? You should be.
What is clear is that courts will require students to make every attempt to pay for their education through scholarships, grants and their own funds before turning to their parents for the rest. In all cases, children must show both the aptitude and motivation to take college seriously. Our courts will not support a dropout, or a child who wants the 5, 6, or 7 year plan. There’s no “Animal House” schools in New Jersey, at least when it comes to parents paying for it. With the collaboration of Connor Turpan, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 and Associate Editor on the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal