In the State of New Jersey, a divorced parent’s obligation to provide toward the higher education of a child of the marriage is generally determined pursuant to the factors set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1983). However, in 2006 Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535 (2006), was decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court, wherein the Father was not determined to be responsible to contribute toward the cost of his estranged daughter’s higher education. In that case, the most determinative facts that led to the father being absolved of such an obligation by the Court included: (a) contribution was not sought by the Mother (or child) except by way of Cross Motion to the Father’s Motion to have the daughter emancipated following her graduation from college; (b) the Father had paid child support for his daughter throughout the period of her college education; and (c) the Father was not provided the opportunity to participate in the college selection process and the child selected an expensive private college that provided similar programs to those available at less costly State universities.
In its decision, Court provides some general guidelines for parents seeking college contribution for their children in a post-divorce setting: “As soon as practical, the parent or child should communicate with the other party concerning the many issues inherent in selecting a college. At a minimum, a parent of child seeking contribution should initiate the application to the court before the expenses are incurred.” Id. at 546-547. Moreover, “the failure to [seek contribution and initiate application to the court before college expenses are incurred] will weigh heavily against the grant of a future application.” Id. (emphasis added).
Thus, if read in conjunction with the facts of the case and the factors set forth pursuant to Newburgh, a custodial parent should do the following in conjunction with a child’s college search and selection process in order to ensure that the non-custodial parent properly contributes toward the costs of the child’s education:
1. Provide the non-custodial parent information and updates in writing regarding the child’s college search, preferably beginning in the middle of the child’s junior year of high school through the summer preceding his or her senior year. Such information should include booklets from colleges or universities being considered regarding programs in which the child has an interest in pursuing, financial aid available to the child and/or parents, copies of applications, and any other relevant information.
2. In writing, request input from the non-custodial parent regarding the child’s college search and selection process. This should be done at a minimum when: (a) the child is first beginning their college search and should include a list of the colleges or universities where the child wishes to visit and/or apply; (b) before the child actually begins making visits to the prospective colleges and/or universities, preferably setting forth the dates of anticipated visits; (c) subsequent to all visits setting forth a comprehensive list of college and/or universities to which the child anticipates applying; (d) subsequent to the application process; and (e) upon receipt of acceptances.
3. In the summer preceding the child’s senior year of high school, in writing, request that the non-custodial parent review their finances and inform you as to their financial ability to contribute toward the child’s college expenses by a date certain. If no response to such a request is received and/or the non-custodial parent’s answer is that he or she is unable to contribute or is only able to do so minimally, it is incumbent upon the custodial parent to file an application with the Court requesting determination as to each party’s obligation to contribute toward the cost of the child’s education.
Preferably such an application should be filed subsequent to the child’s application to his or her selected colleges and or universities and before the child has made any determinative decision upon receipt of acceptances such that payment has been made or is due and owing. This may require application in the early fall of the child’s senior year in high school if the child wishes to go the path of early acceptance to a college or university.
Note: The Court in Gac does state that “[a] relationship between a non-custodial parent and a child is not required for the custodial parent or the child to ask the non-custodial parent” to contribute toward the child’s college expenses. Id. at 546.