Myth 2: Divorced or unmarried parents do not have a financial obligation to provide post-secondary education support to their unemancipated children.

As a family law practitioner, I often find that one of the “hot button” issues for my clients is the forced contribution to the post-secondary (college) costs of their children. New Jersey is in the minority of states that require divorced and unmarried parents to contribute to at least a portion of their children’s educational expenses. Many scholarly articles and oral arguments have been made concerning the unfairness of this requirement because married parents have no legal obligation to support their children through college. However, the notion of a divorced or unmarried parent’s contribution seems heavily embedded in our law and a change does not seem to be on the horizon. As a parent of a college-aged child, it is important that you understand the law surrounding this obligation.

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

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 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;
12 – The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child; and
13 – Contribution made to household expenses by the current spouse of either parent [Hudson v. Hudson, 315 N.J. Super. 577 (App. Div. 1998)].

One could write volumes of articles regarding each of the above factors. However, for purposes of this forum, I will offer some practical tips when preparing for a court hearing regarding college contribution.

Get Your Financial Records In Order

As seen in factors 4 and 6, the financial resources of both parties is an important consideration. The Court will not force parents that are struggling financially to take an additional obligation that may place them at a serious risk of bankruptcy. The Court is going to want to review your previous 3-5 years worth of Tax Returns, W-2 Forms, Social Security Earning Statements, Bonus Information and Bank Records. This financial snapshot will allow the Court to determine each party’s ability to contribute to college expenses. Often times, Courts will set each parent’s financial obligation based off a respected percentage of their total combined incomes. For example, if the mother earns $100,000.00 per year and the father earns $50,000.00 per year, they would be required to contribute 66% and 33% respectively to the college tuition of their child.

Your accountant should have file copies of your previous tax returns and W-2 information. With regard to social security earning statements, you can contact the Social Security Department directly to receive this document. Make sure to allow yourself substantial time to retrieve these documents. I would suggest that you begin this process 30-45 days prior to meeting with an attorney or filing your motion Pro Se.

Do Your Homework Regarding Financial Aid Options

As evidenced in factor 10, the availability of grants, loans and scholarships is an important part to the contributing parent’s total. In my experience, judges often apply the amount of financial aid the student received “off the top” of the total college contribution amount attributed to the parents. It is important to understand the various types of loans (subsidized vs unsubsidized..etc) and the available financial aid packages available to your child. Also, make sure to fill out a complete FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid). This form will determine the student’s eligibility for state/federal grants and financial aid. Once this process is complete, you will get a clearer picture of what remaining portion of tuition will be the parents’ responsibility and you can set forward the appropriate financial strategies to satisfy this obligation.

Involve The Other Parent In The Decision-Making Process

Factor 11 deals with the child’s relationship with each parent and their responsiveness to parental guidance. Many parents learn of their children’s plans for college when they are served with a Court Motion regarding financial contribution. While this may not necessary block the moving party’s application for financial support, it certainly does not help your case when the other parent is not informed or involved in the college selection process. Even if your relationship with the other parent is strained, I recommend that you officially put him/her on notice that your child has plans to attend college. This can be accomplished by writing a letter and sending it through certified mail. At a minimum, this notice should be given to the other party when the child enters their Junior year in high school. This advance notice will give the parents plenty of time to discuss a possible agreement regarding contribution or alternately, a chance for the issue to resolved through the Court system before the child’s first tuition bill is due to the college.

In conclusion, it is very important to understand the law in New Jersey regarding each parent’s financial responsibility to support their children through college. People who leave themselves in the dark and believe that their financial obligation for their children ceases at high school graduation are placing themselves in a vulnerable position when their children attend college. If you are not married and have children that are approaching college age, it is my advice to talk to a financial planner to develop a payment strategy for this expense and consult with an experienced family law practitioner to review your legal rights.