College and Divorce in NJIt’s college application time and parents across the state are praying for the essay fairy to arrive and save them. Having gone through it twice, I am sympathetic to all of those who are now going through what is a rite of indoctrination in parenting. Then, just when you think you get a break, now you have to figure out how to pay for it!

Even though those acceptance letters won’t be in the mail until April (unless your student is applying early action, or to a school with rolling admissions), it’s not too soon to start thinking about it. This takes on a whole other level of stress when you are divorced or separated from your child’s other parent.

New Jersey law clearly provides that a divorced or separated parent’s obligation extends to higher education. Unlike our neighbor to the west, support does not stop after high school when a child has the capacity to attend college, or a trade school. Not only is there an obligation to contribute towards college, child support does not end when your child goes off to the dorms. It may change, but it does not end.

Help your child choose schools to apply to.

Like a kid at an ice cream sundae bar, your child’s appetite for college may be more than you can eat. When those glossy brochures and exciting emails come from private universities and your child is wide eyed, now is the time to manage expectations. As one example, George Washington University is $70,443 per year (including room and board).

If your child is not going to qualify for significant financial aid or scholarships, and you can’t afford what you reasonably think may be your share, don’t encourage your child to apply. It can only lead to heartache on the part of your child, and in some cases, a court order that can be financially devastating.

Several years ago, I was involved in a case in which the father encouraged his daughter to apply to his Alma matter – a small school with a big price tag. She applied, was accepted, and then he realized he could not afford it. The judge held that he had to contribute a portion that was equal to his proportionate share of the combined income of him and his ex-wife regardless of the fact that it was crippling to his finances. The court notes that the father had been involved in encouraging the child to visit, and apply to the school.

Another issue to consider is whether this is the first child to attend college. Are there brothers and sisters coming up from behind? Prospective obligations for other children are valid issues to consider. Now is the time to manage expectations.

To be sure, your ex may not agree with your opinion as to what is and what is not affordable. This is not the time to be a shrinking violet, whichever side of the argument you are on. Make your position known, in writing, so you can defend it later.

How much will you have to pay for college after a divorce?

This answer may depend on your settlement agreement if you were divorced, or have some type of agreement with your child’s other parent. If there is no agreement, current New Jersey law mandates that the following factors be taken into consideration:

  • Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
  • The effect of the background, values, and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
  • The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
  • The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
  • The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
  • The financial resources of both parents;
  • The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
  • The financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
  • The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
  • The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
  • The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and,
  • The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

What about child support while your child is living in that fancy dorm?

Even though your child may be living in a dorm and eating gourmet like meals that are far better than the mystery meat you may have had in college, a payor of child support will still likely have to pay some level of support. For starters, even though the custodial parent is not giving the child dinner every night, the rent or mortgage and tax payment has not changed. While the water bill may go down, the custodial parent still has to heat the same size house that has the child’s room, and still has to pay for the auto insurance. Moreover, the child still needs clothes, toiletries, haircuts, and the like.

In some cases, courts have recognized that the needs of the child may even go up when they go away to school. If the child support was being calculated pursuant to the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, the guidelines no longer apply when a child goes away to school for the determination of the amount of child support that is payable.

The factors and expenses in addition to the ones I have already mentioned which have to be considered include: transportation (possible automobile maintenance or payments, gasoline, parking, or alternate travel expenses); furniture (such as lamps, shelves, or dorm set-up and small appliances); clothing; linens and bedding; luggage; telephone; supplies (like paper, pens, markers, or calculators); sundries (such as cleaning supplies or laundry detergent); toiletries (soap, shampoo, and other personal hygiene necessaries); insurance (automobile, health, and personal property); entertainment for college events and organizations; and spending money.

This is all considered against the actual college costs that the parent is paying, as well as any reasonable contribution that the student should make from sources such as summer jobs, savings, co-ops, and work study programs.

These questions are not easy, and not ones which can typically be resolved quickly. That’s why, even though it is a while before the first payments are due, the time to start preparing is now. An experienced family law attorney can help.