Parents' Contribution to College Costs in New Jersey

It may surprise divorced parents to learn that they may be legally required to pay for their children’s college expenses. Parents’ contribution to college costs in New Jersey has been the subject of many court cases over the years. One landmark case was Nebel v. Nebel. The Nebel court held that a divorced parent may have to contribute toward the college expenses of a child. After Nebel, the question became under what circumstances a parent would be required to contribute, and in what amounts.

Newburgh v. Arrigo Factors

The New Jersey Supreme Court case Newburgh v. Arrigo, is arguably the most influential case regarding parents’ contribution to college costs in New Jersey. The case established several factors that courts must consider when deciding if and how much parents should contribute to the costs of their child’s higher education. The court listed a total of 12 factors, including the parent’s ability to pay for higher education and the state of the relationship between the child and the parent. In determining parents’ contribution to college costs in New Jersey, a court must weigh all of the Newburgh factors. Later cases have provided guidance on how the factors should be weighed and what parents can expect regarding the obligation to pay college costs.

“Rutgers Rule”

Another holding of the Nebel case was that the father’s college expense obligation was limited to the approximate cost of a New Jersey resident student at a New Jersey state college. This became known as the “Rutgers Rule”. After Nebel, Finger v. Zenn clarified the Rutgers Rule. In that case the issue was whether a divorced spouse could be required to pay for an expensive private college when a less expensive option existed. The father argued that the Rutgers Rule should apply, and he should only be required to pay a sum in the amount of fifty percent of the cost of Rutgers tuition, rather than fifty percent of the much more expensive private university his son chose to attend. The court disagreed with the father and distinguished the case from the Nebel case. The court noted that the defendant’s income and assets were more than adequate for a fifty percent contribution to the tuition at the private university his son decided to attend, and therefore, he would be required to pay for half of the actual tuition.

Estrangement

In 2006, the Supreme Court of New Jersey considered parents’ contribution to college costs in New Jersey when there is no relationship between the parent and the child. In Gac v. Gac, a child sought to have her estranged father pay her college loans. The court examined the Newburgh factors and held that under the circumstances, the parent did not have to pay the child’s college loans. This was a fact intensive analysis and should not stand for the general proposition that in any estranged relationship, the noncustodial parent will not have to pay for a higher education. While the court clearly reinforced that a relationship between the parent and child was not necessary for the court to order that the estranged parent pay for higher education, in this case the parent was relieved of his obligation because he was never asked to pay for college until after the expense had been incurred and he was never consulted about his daughter’s decisions to pursue higher education. The lessons from the Gac case for children or parents requesting contribution are then: 1) a child or his/her parent should make the request of the noncustodial parent for contribution before incurring college debt; 2) the parent or child should discuss with the other parent the choice to pursue higher education; and 3) the issue should be brought before the court prior to incurring the debt.

Black v. Black

The 2014 case Black v. Black dealt with three interesting legal issues. First, the court again held that parents’ contribution to college costs in New Jersey is not dependent on a positive parent/child relationship. The court was generally concerned that a parent not be able to get out of paying for college by intentionally avoiding any relationship with his/her child. In this case particularly, it was the child who did not want a relationship with the father. Noting that the parents had previously agreed that father and son would attend counseling together so that they could work on their relationship, and that they did not in fact attend counseling sessions, the court ordered that the father’s contribution obligation was contingent on the son’s obligation to attend joint counseling sessions with his father.

Next the court turned to the issue of the parents’ ability to pay for college. The court held that it is proper for courts to consider whether higher education is available at a school that is less expensive than the school that may be the child’s top choice. The court may consider the availability of state colleges and private colleges at a substantially reduced tuition. This is another fact-sensitive analysis to be done on a case-by-case basis. The court noted that just like intact families, divorced families must consider the cost of tuition when making decisions about a child’s education and parents should not have to pay higher tuition than they can afford.

Finally, the court took into consideration that there were younger siblings who would probably go to college and whether that would factor into the analysis of the contributions the parents make toward the education of the eldest child. The court held that although this factor was not specifically addressed in the Newburgh decision, it was an equitable factor that should be considered. When there are younger siblings who will likely go to college who are close in age to the eldest child, the court should also consider that parents will eventually be expected to contribute to the younger siblings’ educations. In so doing, the court determined how much the parents could afford to pay per year and then allocated that amount between the three children. The court acknowledged that the funds so divided may not be enough to pay the full tuition for any of the children, but the allocation was fair and reasonable assistance to subsidize the children’s college costs. Considering this factor may also prevent future applications to the court when the younger siblings are preparing to go off to college.

Conclusions

Parents’ contribution to college costs in New Jersey is based on a fact-intensive inquiry and will be handled on a case by case basis. Many of the parents in the cases discussed above may have avoided costly litigation by examining all of the facts ahead of time and providing the framework for how contributions will be made up front in the marital settlement agreement. Peter Van Aulen is an attorney experienced in drafting comprehensive marital settlement agreements. You can contact the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at 201-845-7400 for a free consultation.

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