Is a parent obligated to pay a child’s way through college?
As reported in USA Today and numerous other news outlets, the story of the 18-year-old Morristown woman who brought suit against her parents asking that her parents be ordered to pay her private high school tuition as well as her college expenses has been the subject of many a water cooler conversation. A central issue in that case was whether the 18 year old, who was living on her own, was actually emancipated, as her parents claim, or whether she was dependent on her parents, as she claimed. The judge denied her initial request for support and private high school tuition, but left the decision on college expenses for another day.
At the same time the court in Morristown was hearing that case, the New Jersey Appeals Court issued an opinion in Campbell v. Campbell that is instructive on a parent’s obligation to support a child entering college.
The factors a court must consider
In Campbell, the parents divorced in 2006 after having two daughters, who were nine and six at the time of the divorce. In an agreement executed as a part of the divorce, they agreed that both had an obligation to provide for the costs of a college education for their daughters. The costs were to be shared in accordance with their respective incomes and abilities to pay at the time the child reached college age. Although the father had no contact with his daughters for approximately 13 years, his ex-wife requested that he contribute to the cost of his daughter’s college expenses. This was her first request and was made after the daughter was enrolled in college. In response, the father moved to terminate his obligation to pay for his daughter’s college education.
The court noted the well-established general principle that a child over the age of 18 enrolled in a full-time educational program is entitled to continued support, but the N.J. Supreme Court has laid down 12 factors for a court to consider in making that decision and directed that a reviewing court must consider all relevant factors. These factors include:
- The effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education.
- The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education.
- The ability of the parent to pay that cost.
- The availability of financial aid, including loans.
- The relationship between the child and the paying parent, including shared goals, mutual affection, and responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.
In addition, a parent or child making a request for a contribution should make that request before the college expenses were incurred, and the failure to do that weighs heavily against a grant of any future application. The Campbell court did not actually decide the issues but remanded the case for the lower court to consider all the relevant factors. But the court did note that the ex-wife’s first request for a contribution came after the daughter was enrolled and the expenses incurred. The court further noted that while a relationship between the father and daughter is not required in order for a contribution to be required, the absence of any relationship may render it inequitable that the father be required to contribute.
Anyone who is contemplating asking an ex-spouse for a contribution for college expenses or an ex-spouse who is being asked should seek the advice of an experienced New Jersey family law attorney.