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Divorce in New Jersey: Planning for Cost of Higher Education

Many parents feel morally obligated to help their children afford the cost of higher education. Legally, however, they are not typically required to pay for college.

Unless they are divorced.

undefinedNew Jersey and a minority of other states permit judges to require divorced parents to pay for the cost of a child’s higher education. These can be complex cases and are best handled by an experienced Middlesex County family law firm.

The New Jersey Supreme Court case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529(1982) first established the criteria a court considers:

  • Whether the parent would have otherwise contributed to such education.
  • Reasonableness of the expectation of a child’s education given the parents’ backgrounds, values, and goals.
  • Amount of contribution sought.
  • Ability of a parent to pay.
  • Relationship of the funds to kind of school or education sought.
  • Financial resources of both parents.
  • Commitment and aptitude of child.
  • Ability of child to earn income during school.
  • Financial resources of child.
  • Availability of financial aid, including loans and grants.
  • Child’s relationship to paying parent.
  • Relationship of education request to child’s former training and long-term goals.

Mandated Education Contributions under New Jersey Law

Other states with similar laws include Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, and Washington. New Jersey law even allows a child of divorced parents to petition the court directly, to force a parent to fund educational expenses.

You may remember a high-profile case last year in New Jersey, which ended when a judge tossed an order requiring divorcing parents to pay their daughter’s tuition. That case was extreme in that a child sued both parents to challenge her emancipation and the court required parents to cover the $2,000 tuition at Gloucester Community College. A second judge later ordered parents to pay for enrollment at Temple University in Philadelphia, at a cost of about $20,000 annually.

Typically, the court will not entertain education contribution requests until the issue is ripe, or ready to be decided with enrollment pending. However, parents are free to address the issue as part of their divorce agreement. This can be a good idea, provided a workable arrangement is limited in scope to the percentage of contribution or other arrangement that will survive the test of time. This can be important because should the issue not be addressed at the time of divorce, and New Jersey law changes, parental obligation may no longer be assured.

A parent should not agree to assume financial responsibility that will lead to financial hardship. Courts will generally require a child to obtain all available loans, grants, and other aid before requiring a parent to contribute. In other cases, the court may limit contribution to the “Rutgers Rate,” which means the rate charged by lower-cost state universities.

In addition to tuition, college costs that may be considered include:

  • Room and board
  • Food and clothing
  • Computer and cellphone expenses
  • Transportation costs
  • Emergency expenses

In some cases, modifying a child-support agreement may fund or partially fund an education request, as child-support is typically renegotiated once a child goes to college or otherwise leaves home.

In other cases, a parent may not wish to pay or may feel an educational opportunity is too expensive or not a good fit for a child. There are several tools when considering cost of a proposed education.

  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • FAFSA will review family income and assets and determine an Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

A family’s EFC is an important consideration because federal financial aid, including grants, loans, and work-study opportunities, may be available to make up the difference between EFC and tuition cost. However, the federal government will generally require a family to otherwise cover the EFC amount. It’s important to note the federal government does not consider a non-custodial parent’s income and assets in determining EFC.

By determining your EFC and comparing it to the cost of a New Jersey state university like Rutgers, you can get a ballpark idea of what may be considered reasonable. However, contacting an experienced Monmouth County family law attorney will help best determine your rights and obligations.

Call Rozin|Golinder Law, LLC today for a free and confidential consultation so you can determine what the best course of action is for your case.

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