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New Jersey Family Court Reverses Parent College Tuition Cap

New Jersey is unique in that it often expects able parents to contribute to the higher education costs of qualified children. Adult children pursuing a college degree (or license/certification from a vocational school) may even continue to receive child support until the age of 23. But that doesn’t mean it’s always a straightforward process.

Tuition costs being volatile and tough to calculate years in advance, parents who divorce when their kids are younger often table these discussions until the child is closer to attending college. That’s not to say tuition is guaranteed. Courts will look carefully at school costs, the ability of each parent to pay, whether the child can earn money while attending school, and whether there are scholarships/loans available. Judges will also consider the strength of the parent-child relationship and the degree to which each parent was allowed involvement in the child’s choice of a school.

Parents sometimes find it helpful to create an initial general outline for this process when their kids are younger, allowing them to financially plan and to make for a smoother transition when the time comes. Often, there’s even a designated time frame (usually around the child’s junior year in high school) for reconvening to finalize a college tuition cost plan. If both parties cannot agree at that point, it may necessitate judicial intervention.

As experienced Freehold family law attorneys, we help our clients negotiate equitable solutions that help set their kids up for success.

Recently, the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division weighed a request by a mother to overturn an allegedly arbitrary cap on the father’s college tuition contributions. In Van Sciver v. Betten, the Judge capped parents’ college contributions to $10,000. However, a detailed explanation for that ruling wasn’t provided.

According to Court records, the pair married in 1999, had three kids, and divorced in 2016. Their oldest child was already emancipated, but the younger two were 20 and 19. Per the marriage settlement agreement, the two agreed to a mutual exchange of financial records to determine their share of college expenses by the end of each child’s junior year of high school. They agreed that each party’s contribution would be based on whatever their financial circumstances were at the time of the review. Further, the kids had a responsibility to explore all available loans, grants, scholarships and financial aid prior to their parents’ contributions being determined.

In a subsequent 2018 consent order, the parties agreed the mother would contribute 41 percent and the father 59 percent of non-covered college expenses. He would also contribute certain benefits he’d earned while in the military.

The parties’ son was accepted to Syracuse University. The father was involved in the college selection process. He never voiced objection to Syracuse, and in fact stated he was “thrilled” about the acceptance letter.

And yet, the mother ended up pursuing a Court motion to compel her ex to contribute his 59 percent share toward their son’s college expenses. She also wanted accountability for “missing” military benefits, saying the kids’ fathers had intentionally depleted those funds for his own gain. The father answered with a request to limit his contributions, arguing he was “not being given a voice” with regard to college-related purchases.

The Court did not hold a plenary hearing. For those who aren’t familiar, a plenary hearing is sort of similar to a trial in that both sides present evidence, submit witness testimony, and can cross-examine each other. The Judge hears all the evidence before making a fair and complete ruling. That did not happen here. Yet the Judge issued an order that reduced the father’s child support obligations for the two kids and capped both parties’ college tuition contribution to $10,000. The Judge also found no foul play by the father with regard to the unaccounted for military benefits.

The mother sought reconsideration of the reduced child support and capped college tuition. The Judge responded that parents did not have an obligation to supply an unlimited college fund; that the obligation is to pay for “an appropriate college education,” not any school simply because it provides an appropriate college education. No detailed analysis was provided.

The mother appealed - and the appellate Court agreed with her on several points. The biggest issue was that there was no record of any detailed analysis of either parent’s financial circumstances. There was no clear insight as to why the lower Court imposed that $10,000 cap. Finding the lower Court’s ruling unsupported, the Court reversed the cap and child support award, remanding with a stipulation to conduct a more detailed financial analysis.

It’s worth noting that in New Jersey, as in much of the rest of the country, family Courts are considerably backlogged, still catching up after pandemic-related shutdowns. Negotiating a workable solution between you and your co-parent on the issue of college tuition expenses with the help of an attorney through mediation can often facilitate a fair - and much faster - solution.

Contact our Freehold Family Law Attorneys at (732) 810-0034 to schedule an appointment.

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