I‘m Divorced. Who Pays for my Kid’s College?

I‘m Divorced. Who Pays for my Kid’s College?
Town Topics of Princeton, October 2010

The rising costs of a college education coupled with the current economic downturn has made the payment of college expenses a significant issue for most, if not all, New Jersey families, including divorced families.

Although divorcing parents may try to resolve all issues relating to their children’s education at the time of their divorce, circumstances may make it impractical to do so.  For example, at the time of divorce, the children maybe too young to sufficiently determine their future educational needs.  It also may be hard to predict the future financial circumstances of each parent when determining the amount of his or her contribution towards the child’s college costs.  As a result of these unknowns and other circumstances, obligations toward college may be unresolved at the time of divorce.

Ideally, the parents and child would agree to a college and a percentage of the costs each parent will pay after any loans, scholarships or grants are applied.   Sometimes the parents memorialize the terms of their agreement into what is known as a Consent Order, which is filed with the court.  Unfortunately, there are instances when such an amiable result remains out of reach as there may be complicating circumstances that make an agreement difficult to achieve.  For instance, one parent and the child may select a college without consulting the other parent.  One parent also may refuse to participate in the college selection process despite repeated attempts by the child and other parent to involve him or her.  Other times there may be a disagreement about the child attending a state school or private school, the latter usually being the more expensive option.  Sometimes a parent may refuse to contribute to the child’s educational costs because he or she claims they cannot afford to pay due to insufficient assets/income or other financial obligations, such as children of a subsequent marriage.  In these circumstances, a parent may bring a post-judgment motion to open these issues to the court for resolution.

Before filing a post-judgment application with the court, it is important to keep in mind that under most circumstances a judge will only entertain an application for college contribution when the issue is ripe for consideration.  In other words, the best time to bring such an application is proximate to the time the child starts college, generally speaking.  If a child has just entered freshman year or even sophomore year of high school, the court may not make a ruling about the child’s college education because the prospect of the same is years away. 

In cases where a settlement agreement or consent order already addresses the issues of college contribution, the court will generally enforce the terms of the parties’ agreement.  However, there is always a chance that the court will modify the terms of the agreement if one party proves that changed circumstances make its enforcement inequitable.  

In instances where the court needs to resolve the issue of college contribution, the court will consider the following factors:

A judge will evaluate the distinct facts of each case based on all of the above factors when making its determination.  Similarly, a court may also require a child to contribute towards the costs of their education by requiring him or her to obtain all available loans, grants, scholarships and financial aid or other measures.  This ensures that the child has a stake in the cost of his or her education along with their parents.

Although the public policy in the State of New Jersey encourages higher education and the ultimate success of children, a court will not always require a parent to contribute to their child’s college education.  In recent years, applications for college contribution have been defeated upon a showing that the child has no relationship with the non-custodial parent and has failed, along with the custodial parent, to consult or even communicate with the non-custodial parent about the college selection process.  Similarly, an outright failure to fully communicate with the non-custodial parent about the college selection process may result in a parent being relieved of his or her obligation to contribute to college.   Despite these recent findings, it is important to remember that the facts and circumstances of each case are unique and the results in one case may not be the same in another.  For instance, in one recent case, the court held a non-custodial parent accountable for a portion of the child’s college costs when that parent caused the rift in the parent-child relationship.  Notwithstanding the above, custodial parents and children seeking contribution to college costs should fully communicate with the other parent about the college selection process in a timely manner even if there is an estranged parent-child relationship. 

If you are involved in a dispute with your former spouse about your child’s college education, it may help to consult with an experienced attorney specializing in family law to assist you.