It is that special time of year, caps and gowns are being handed out and high school graduations are just around the corner. While I remember this exciting time in my life with fond memories, as a matrimonial attorney, I am getting prepared for an influx of phone calls and emails from individuals regarding which college expenses they are responsible.
In New Jersey, while not automatic , the majority of the divorced parents have an affirmative obligation to contribute towards their child's college expenses. Often times, parties get divorced when their children are young and they draft vague provisions in their settlement agreements which do not define the exact expense categories in which they must contribute. I can write page upon page of the pitfalls associated with overly vague provisions in Marital Settlement Agreements, however, for purposes of this blog, I will outline some common college expenses that I have seen the Courts enforce.
SAT Preparation Classes & College Applications
That is correct, before your child even attends college, you will likely be responsible for your percentage of the SAT preparation classes (potentially tutors) and college application costs. With the weight that colleges place on SAT scores, Courts will often order each party to contribute towards SAT preparation costs. The costs associated with your child's applications colleges will also qualify as a college expense.
Tuition and Fees
The tuition and fees of the college are pretty much self-explanatory. It appears these days, colleges will do everything to include as many fees and costs to the student, including some charges on my client's children's bills being deemed "miscellaneous". Nothing much you can do here, my only tip is to speak with the Bursar's office to understand your payment plan options.
Room and Board
If your child chooses to reside on campus, you will be responsible for their room and board expenses. If on campus, the room expenses are defined as the college dormitory expense that is charged per student. Court's have also held that parents are responsible for a child's off-campus housing, if they choose to move off campus, usually during their Junior or Senior year. If your child resides off campus, in addition to the rent that they pay, you will also more than likely be responsible for the utilities associated with this housing arrangement.
The term "board" typically refers to meal plans for your child. Many colleges have different levels of meal plans that students can select. If your child lives off campus, I have also experienced judges that will allocate a food allowance to the student, due to the fact that they will typically not be subscribing to a meal plan that is offered through the college.
Books & Computer
Your child's books will be including in the college expense obligation. With the emergence of companies that rent text books to college students, this expense over the recent years has decreased and I have seen judges determine that parents are not responsible for the purchase of new text books for their children, with the Courts getting more comfortable with the notion of rented text books.
In this day and age, it is a necessity for college students to have their own computer. Courts are requiring parents to contribute towards this purchase when it comes to assigning college expenses.
Courts are also requiring parents to contribute towards reasonable transportation expenses of the child to get to and from college. With many schools not allowing Freshman to have vehicles on campus, this expenses usually includes airfare (if applicable), bus or train expenses for your child to go to school each semester and come home during recognized breaks in the college schedule.
I have also seen transportation expenses recognized in the context of college visits. It is becoming more common for the expense associated with the visit of a student (and parent) to a potential college being shared as a recognized college expense. This expense usually includes, lodging for the visit, food and gas reimbursement for the parent that is accompanying the child on the visit.
As you can see, the contribution towards your child's college expenses can quickly escalate. My advice is to be as specific as possible when negotiating your Marital Settlement Agreement in regard to the definition of college expenses. Court's will honor agreements that limit contribution to certain categories. If you discuss these expenses in advance of your child attending college, all involved parties will know where they stand and you can hopefully avoid a future litigation regarding what is included in your college contribution obligation.