New Jersey Legislature may consider radical changes to college contribution process in family court system
The New Jersey Legislature recently passed landmark alimony reform; could college contribution reform be next? One Burlington County legislator wants to lead the charge. Let's take a step back and consider the current lay of the land. When looking at child support obligations as a general matter, many New Jerseyans aren't aware that emancipation isn't automatic in New Jersey as it is in certain other U.S. jurisdictions. “Really what New Jersey does is say, that the child in the sphere of influence of the parents,” DeMichele & DeMichele's Rick DeMichele explained to Chasing New Jersey back in March 2012. “In other words, if the child left the home, would they be able to survive on their own? And that's kind of how New Jersey takes a look at it as opposed to say the Pennsylvania model which is a hard and fast 18 or graduation from high school, whichever comes later.” Calculating child support for older children pursuing post-secondary education is a nuanced process which turns on such variables as whether the child is living on campus. In the college context, the major 1982 New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Newburgh v. Arrigo definitively established an obligation for parents to assist with higher education: “In general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students. In appropriate circumstances, parental responsibility includes the duty to assure children of a college and even of a postgraduate education such as law school.” The Supreme Court set forth twelve (12) separate equitable factors which the family courts need to carefully weigh in making their highly-factual determination:
(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 ability of the parent 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.
As further explained over two decades later in Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535 (2006), additional specific factors that may figure into the contribution determination include whether the petitioning parent sought that relief affirmatively or by way of response to an emancipation motion, whether the responding party already had a history of paying child support throughout the college education period, and whether the responding party was afforded a chance to participate in the college selection process. New Jersey courts have since added qualifications to the parental contribution for higher education obligation and, as in Gac, mentioned the possibility of other factors beyond the Newburgh enumerated factors coming into play but, in the end, continue to preserve the obligation. The holdings of the published 2014 Black v. Black decision together provide the most recent prominent example: (1) When there is a damaged relationship between a college-age student and a parent, the court may order the student to attend joint counseling with the parent as a condition of the student receiving ongoing financial assistance from that parent for college tuition, so long as there is no compelling reason to keep the parent and student physically apart. (2) The option of attending college at a state college or a private college, at substantially less cost than the student's school of first preference, is a relevant issue for the court's consideration. The Appellate Division's reported opinion in Finger v. Zenn, 335 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div.2000) does not hold to the contrary. (3) While the Supreme Court case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982) sets forth a list of factors for a court to consider on the issue of college contribution, a case may present additional equitable factors for consideration as well. One such additional factor is whether the student has younger siblings of relatively close age who are also likely to attend college in the near future. In such circumstance, there may be a need for implementation of a reasonable financial plan which fairly allocates present and future contemplated funding resources among all of the parties' children, rather than exhausting such resources primarily or exclusively on the oldest child who happens to be first in line for college. Enter Assemblyman Christopher J. Brown of Burlington County. Responding to a Camden County case were a 21-year old girl successfully sued her estranged parents for Temple University tuition while residing with her grandparents, Brown believes it's time to add additional limitations to the college contribution analysis. He's proposing a bill of his own which he says will do just that.
“If the law gives the judge no choice but to override parental authority, then we need to change the law,” Brown told The Burlington County Times. “This legislation will allow parents to more independently determine the financial responsibility for their child's educational experience, based on the family's best interests instead of a judge's ruling.” New Jersey family court judges can exercise significant discretion. While the judge in the case cited by Brown may have found an obligation, in the internationally-publicized early 2014 case of Morris County teen Rachel Canning, a judge denied that teen's request for child support and private high school tuition after she moved into her friend's parents' home. We'll continue to keep you updated with any developments including the details of this legislative proposal when they emerge. For now, if you have any questions regarding the ins and outs of child support in New Jersey, contribution for college tuition, or family law generally, please contact us online today or call (856) 546-1350 for a confidential consultation with one of our skilled family court lawyers. These cases are factually-sensitive, potentially convoluted and inevitably emotional. Our legal team is here to help you with experienced, compassionate and zealous representation.