A divorced parent’s legal obligation to contribute toward a child’s college expenses has been a long standing subject in New Jersey law. Unlike many other states, New Jersey requires a divorced parent to pay for his/her child’s college expenses if the child is a full time student attending college on a consecutive semester basis. The leading cases in this area are Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J 529 (1982) and Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535 (2006). In Newburgh, the New Jersey Supreme Court established twelve factors a trial court must consider in evaluating a divorced parent’s college contribution which have been the subject of previous postings on this site. In Gac, the Court stated that a parent seeking contribution a child’s college expenses from his or her former spouse “should, at a minimum, initiate the application… before the expenses are incurred [and that] the failure to do so will weigh heavily against the grant of a future application.”

It is against this backdrop that a New Jersey appeals court decided the case of Martin v. Martin on May 23, 2014. The case involved Ms. Martin’s appeal from a trial court ruling which denied her application to compel her former husband to contribute to the college expenses of their daughter because Ms. Martin delayed making her application until her daughter was in her third semester of college. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for a full evidentiary hearing, finding that the trial court’s interpretation of Gac had been “very restricted without recognizing the equitable considerations that underlie that decision” [and that] “Gac does not establish a bright line rule permitting automatic denial whenever a request has been filed after the educational expense has been incurred. The Court admonished the trial court for having failed to conduct a hearing at which it could “flush out all the information necessary to properly and fairly evaluate the Newburgh factors”. As a result, Mr. Martin will likely be liable for a share of his daughter’s past as well as future college expenses. Beyond the impact on the parties and future cases, the lesson of Martin is that family courts are courts of equity where principles of fairness will significantly impact outcomes.