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Are divorced or divorcing parents on the hook for college costs?

It’s that time of year when students and their parents start receiving bills for the upcoming college year. Paying for college is always a source of stress, but the issue is magnified for parents who are divorcing or recently divorced.

In New Jersey, courts may require parents to assist with college funding. This can be a contentious issue during – and sometimes after – divorce proceedings. Will you be forced to pay for your son or daughter’s college? What are the remedies if the other parent refuses to help?

Does New Jersey require parents to pay for college?

In 2014, an 18-year-old New Jersey girl famously sued her estranged parents for financial support, including a demand that they pay her college tuition and living expenses. Her lawsuit was dismissed, but it was not altogether far-fetched.

More than 30 years earlier, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that parents are sometimes required to pay for college. That decision (Newburgh v. Arrigo) laid out 12 factors for courts to consider in deciding whether to compel the parents to help pay for college. Parents can even be required to take out loans on behalf of their son or daughter.

Working out college costs in the divorce settlement

Typically, the issue only comes up in context of divorce. One of the factors the courts look at is whether the parents would have helped pay for college if they had stayed together. That expectation does not change simply because the parents are divorcing. However, divorce changes the finances of both parents; typically there is less money available to subsidize college. If the matter ends up in litigation, the court considers the ability of each parent to contribute.

College assistance can be negotiated in the divorce settlement, as money set aside or as a fixed level of contribution while the child is in post-secondary school. This may be preferable to having a judge decide how much each parent will contribute. Also, the high court ruled in another case (Avelino-Catabran vs. Catabran) that college stipulations in a divorce settlement overrule the 12 factors criteria. So it may be prudent to (a) get it right and (b) get it in writing, with the help of a knowledgeable divorce attorney.

Revisiting college costs after a divorce

The financial situation of either parent may change after divorce. If one parent suffers unemployment or other hardship, they can petition the court to modify the court decree regarding college costs. Conversely, if one parent gets a promotion or financial windfall, they could be compelled to chip in more. If parents cannot reach an agreement, a modification hearing before a family court judge may be necessary.

The court also has the power to impose sanctions (wage garnishment or bank liens) if one parent is willfully withholding their court-ordered share of college expenses.

A lawyer who has litigated these divorce and custody issues can gauge whether you are likely to be on the hook for college contributions, and the best way to proceed.

 

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