Does Estrangement Between a Parent and Child Eliminate a Parent’s Obligation to Contribute to College Education Expenses?

Posted in Divorce
It is well settled law that both parents have an obligation to contribute to the child’s college education expenses.  The real question is to what degree? 
 
In assessing this issue, the Supreme Court in Newburgh v. Arrigo set forth factors that courts should consider.  They are as follows:
  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.
Factor 11, dealing with the child’s relationship to the paying parent, is just one factor out of twelve.  However, in a recent case, the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed a Trial Court’s Decision that the father did not have to contribute to his son’s first year of college at Drexel, focusing on this factor, as well as the fact that there was no meaningful communication between the parties with respect to college.
 
In the case of Agos v. Camuso, the relationship between father and son disintegrated when the father remarried and had another child.  The son testified that he felt like a "third wheel" and an "outcast" in his father’s new family.  The father attempted to fix things between he and his son by engaging in reconciliation therapy, but the son refused to go.  The father wrote a letter to the son which the son never read, he tried to contact him by cell phone and the son disconnected the phone, and he attempted to communicate by email and was rebuffed.  When the father asked whether he was invited to the son’s high school graduation, the mother told him that his son did not want him there.
 
During early 2010, the father tried to obtain information from his ex-wife with regard to the son’s college plans.  No meaningful information was given to him.  In April, 2010, the son was accepted to a five year engineering program at Drexel.  It was not until August that the ex-wife advised the father that their son was going to Drexel and that she expected him to pay his proportionate share.
 
The father filed a motion with the Court to relieve him of his obligation, and the mother filed a cross-motion seeking to enforce his obligation.
 
The Lower Court found that the mother, father and son shared equal responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship.  Specifically, neither the mother nor son did what should have been done to help correct the problem, even when the father was anxious to do so.  The Court held that it would not be fair and equitable to enforce the father’s obligation to pay his share for the first year of college since there was no mutual affection between father and son–it was all one sided.
 
Since there was no responsiveness from the mother or son to the father’s efforts, he could not provide advice or guidance with regard to the college education issue.  More importantly, there was no meaningful communication between the parties regarding college, and, therefore, the father had no input on this major decision which would clearly affect his finances.
 
While the Lower Court relieved the father of his obligation for the first year of college tuition and expenses, he would not be relieved of future obligations if the son had meaningful communication with his father by keeping him informed of all college related matters in advance so as to permit the father the opportunity to participate in future decisions.
 
The Appellate Division agreed with the Lower Court and affirmed its decision.
 
Maria Imbalzano is the Co-Chair of Stark & Stark’s Divorce Group in the Lawrenceville, New Jersey office. For questions, please contact Ms. Imbalzano.