New Jersey Court Upholds Parent’s Obligation to Pay for Child’s College

In the course of a New Jersey divorce, the parties often enter into agreements that discuss future splits of costs and expenditures, sometimes called a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) or Matrimonial Settlement Agreement (MSA). For example, parties often will include provisions in these agreements on who will pay for future college costs for their children, or for extracurricular activities. Sometimes, however, circumstances change after these initial agreements are made, and one party may seek to reduce his or her originally agreed-upon financial obligations. This often is much easier said than done—and must be based on a meritorious claim.

In a recent Superior Court of New Jersey opinion, the court considered a divorced couple’s obligations toward their sons’ college costs. The parties had four sons during their twenty-year marriage. When they divorced, they entered into a PSA, which included a provision that would divide the costs of college and secondary education evenly between the two parties.

The plaintiff filed a motion to reduce his child support obligation, which failed when the trial court required the plaintiff to still contribute 50 percent of college costs for two of his sons. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that he should not be obligated to pay for his two sons’ college expenses because he did not agree to their choice of schools.

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision. Because a Family Part judge exercises “substantial discretion” in determining the parties’ contribution to college expenses and the decision was not “manifestly unreasonable or arbitrary,” the court sided with the lower court’s holding. The factual findings of the trial court deserved additional deference, the Superior Court noted, because the trial court has the opportunity to make firsthand credibility judgments about witnesses and parties involved in the dispute.

In addition, because the parties’ PSA did not condition a parent’s agreement to the child’s choice of college as necessary for contribution toward college costs, the Superior Court again emphasized that the plaintiff was expected to pay his share. Because there was no merit to the plaintiff’s argument that because he did not agree to his sons’ choice of college that he would be absolved of any contribution toward the costs for their education, the Superior Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to require the plaintiff to pay his share.

In New Jersey, there are several factors that a court must consider when determining college contributions. These factors, commonly referred to as the Newburgh factors, include (1) whether the parent would have contributed to the costs of the requested higher education, (2) the effect of the background and values of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education, (3) the amount of contribution sought, (4) the ability of the parent to pay that cost, (5) the relationship of the requested contribution to the course of study sought, (6) the financial resources of both parents, (7) the commitment from the child on the requested education, (8) the financial resources of the child, (9) the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or vacation, (10) the availability of financial aid, (11) the child’s relationship to the paying parent, and (12) the relationship of education to the long term goals of the child.

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