Divorced Parents’ Responsibility to Fund Higher Education Expenses

Posted in Divorce & Family Law

New Jersey is among a minority of states that require divorced or separated parents to fund their children’s higher education expenses.

Since the case of Nebel v. Nebel, 103 N.J. Super. 216 (App. Div. 1968), the New Jersey Courts have found that financially able parents must contribute to their children’s college expenses. In that case, the Court allowed the custodial mother to select a private college on behalf of her son, but determined the father’s contribution based on tuition at state universities. In Finger v. Zenn, 335 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div. 2000) the Court overturned Nebel in part, and held that the contribution of financially capable parents ought to be calculated on the tuition at the university in which the child is actually enrolled, whether public or private.

The Court, in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), delineated the specific criteria to be considered in determining whether parents are legally obligated to fund higher education expenses:

• Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
• The effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
• The amount of the contribution sought by the child for higher education;
• The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
• The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child; • The financial resources of both parents;
• The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
• The financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
• The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
• The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
• The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance;
• The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child; and
• Contribution made to household expenses by the current spouse of either parent [Hudson v. Hudson, 315 N.J. Super. 577 (App. Div. 1998)].

Generally, Courts will hold all financially able parents responsible for contributing to the college expenses of qualified students. However, in instances where children have had no relationship with a parent, and the parent is not involved in the child’s decision to attend college and where, Courts have held that parent not responsible for the child’s higher education expenses. For example, in Moss v. Nedas, 289 N.J. Super. 352 (App. Div. 1996), the Court refused to hold the father responsible for any portion of his daughter’s college expenses after finding that she had excluded him from all of the decisions leading up to her enrollment.

The responsibility to contribute to higher education expenses may not end with the completion of a four-year college program. In Ross v. Ross, 167 N.J. Super. 441 (Ch. Div. 1979), the Court required the father to continue child support payments for his daughter until she completed law school.

The responsibility also does not end with the death of a parent. In Kiken v. Kiken, 149 N.J. 441 (1997), the Court held the father’s estate responsible for contributing to his son’s undergraduate college expenses.

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  • I am glad that New Jersey is recognizing the importance of higher education. Unfortunately, in Texas, support ends at age 18. However, many of the divorce decrees I have worked on state the obligation on both parties to pay for higher education expenses.

  • Susan Kaplan

    If you cannot afford to pay for college education, the Court should not force parents to take additional loans (if they can qualify) and barely survive in order to do so. If you cant afford an attorney you are dead in the water, you have to pay both support and college expenses and if you cannot they will issue a bench warrant for your arrest. In our case they added the college expenses to child support arrears and they will have to be paid forever.
    My husband is 62 years old. He has a heart condition and he will not be able to retire anytime until these are paid, and his ex-wife wants the Court to make him pay and to make arrangements for payments in the event of his death! The court does not look at the situation unless an attorney makes it…without an attorney you will either die trying to pay, or die in jail. Those are the choices. How can you get help!!!

  • linda

    this past june my last 2 children graduated high school… My ex and I agreed to emmancipation.. We have twins that are attending college . One twin dropped out but is going back this fall.. The other, who by no choice of mine, decided to let his father talk him into attending college in NJ and reside with him… NOW, my ex is taking me to court and claiming , “change of circumstance” and wants me to pay support to him for the twin living with him! How can he back out of “emmancipation”. My son tells me he did not know about it and cant control his father… My income is far lower than my ex’s. My sons attend college and have student loans.. My low pay finally paid off for something! I send money to my son for car insurance premiums and traveling money. My daughter told me that my ex is doing this because he wants me to loose my house.. I am sooo distraught! I thought I was finally rid of my abusive ex but he keeps coming! Someone once told me that it is never over til the fat lady sings… At this point I am thinking it is never over til I am 8 feet under… How do I get my ex to leave me alone!

  • Linda,

    Since I can’t tell from your question, do you have a written Agreement clearly stating that both children are emancipated? Is “emancipation” defined?
    What state was the divorce entered in? Does the Agreement say that the laws of that state will govern any future disputes?

    John Eory

  • Al

    Are there any cases where it’s clearly defined what’s a college expense and what’s not? Tuition, books, room/board are obvious but what about car expenses (if living on campus) clothing, food, etc. If I still pay the same child support as before college shouldn’t these expenses be part of CS?

  • Al,

    Good question. The term “college costs” can be expansive enough to cover all the categories you mention, as well as others such as travel to/from school in some cases. The starting point is to obtain a mutually-agreeable definition in your particular circumstances. The second issue is, as you raise, that of child support while a child is attending college. The law gives consideration to room and board expenses for away-from-home students in terms of child support so as not to “double dip” the non-custodial parent. There is, however, no hard and fast rule as to the amount of a child support reduction in such situations and, assuming child support is reduced, it would likely only be for the number of weeks the child is actually away from home. The other weeks would require a higher payment. I have seen courts blend the two into one amount which the non-custodial pays year-round.

    Note that for a child to remain unemancipated after age 18, (and therefore entitled to support) he/she must be a full time college or vocational school student.

    John Eory