College Contribution and a Parent’s Ability to Pay: An Overlooked (or Ignored) Factor?

It is well settled law in New Jersey that divorced or separated parents may have an obligation to contribute to the cost of their child’s college, and even post-graduate, education. The leading case in this area, Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 NJ 529, was decided in 1982 and sets forth a number of factors which the Court is to consider when determining whether, and how to, apportion the cost of a higher education. This post is not intended to present an exhaustive discussion of all of these factors, but instead, I want to focus on what I believe is the most significant (and overlooked) factor, a parent’s ability to pay.

In practice, it is almost always taken for granted that both parents will be contributing to the cost of college. While the Court is obligated to take into account the financial resources of the parents as well as their ability to pay, it has been my experience that short of complete and total destitution, a Court will almost always find an ability to pay. I have seen this happen in cases where the party from whom contribution was sought was earning in the $30,000.00 per year range. I have even seen this happen in a case where the non-custodial parent’s only source of income was Social Security Disability payments. I don’t believe that my experiences in this area are necessarily unique, but rather I think they are reflective of what is happening in Family Courts throughout this State.

While I can appreciate a Court’s unwillingness to casually or routinely accept an “I don’t have the money” argument, I believe the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Not only will a Court almost always find an ability to pay, but in my experience, the Court will almost always defer to the child’s choice of college, regardless of potentially less expensive schools which might be available.

As a New Jersey divorce lawyer, it is my opinion that the Courts should be undertaking a more thorough, realistic evaluation of the finances of the litigants who appear before it. This is especially true at present, given the economic downturn as well as the ever-increasing cost of college. A parent earning $30,000 or less in the State of New Jersey probably does not have the ability to contribute to college costs. I would like to see a “bright line” income level set, below which there would be a presumption that the parent does not have the financial ability to contribute.