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The College Selection Process for Divorced Families

This week the Northern Hemisphere celebrated the Summer Solstice which marks the longest day of the year and the official start of the summer season. The month of June also brings with it the end of the school here in New Jersey and the many high school graduations. In New Jersey, approximately 70% of those graduates are enrolled to start college in the months ahead. For most families, once the euphoria of graduation wears off and celebratory balloons begin to deflate, it does not take long for the anxiety related the costs, both emotional and mainly financial, associated with a child[en]’s attendance at college to set in. The stress associated with the process can also be magnified in situations where the parties are divorced.

In New Jersey, while an intact family unit has no legal obligation to contribute towards their children’s education, the same principle does not apply to divorced families.  In the seminal New Jersey Supreme Court case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 IMG_1930-300x225N.J. 529 (1982), our Supreme Court held that, “in appropriate circumstances, the privilege of parenthood carries with it the duty to assure a necessary education for children.” Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543.  The Supreme Court identified twelve non-exhaustive factors a court should consider when deciding a motion by one parent for contribution from the other parent toward the cost of a child’s higher education. The factors are: (1) whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education; (2) the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education; (3) the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education; (4) the ability of the parent to pay that cost; (5) the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child; (6) the financial resources of both parents; (7) the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education; (8) the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust; (9) the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans; (11) the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and (12) the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.” The Court added “[i]n general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students. In appropriate circumstances, parental responsibility includes the duty to assure children of a college and even of a postgraduate education such as law school.” Id. at 544.

The factors set forth in Newburgh, contemplate that a parent or child seeking contribution towards the expenses of higher education will make the request before the educational expenses are incurred. As soon as practical, the parent or child should communicate with the other parent concerning the many issues inherent in selecting a college. At a minimum, a parent or child seeking contribution should initiate the application to the court before the expenses are incurred. The failure to do so will weigh heavily against the grant of a future application. Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 546 (2006).

One of the reasons cited often times for why a couple gets divorced is because they can no longer constructively communicate with one another. The Supreme Court of New Jersey has puts places a duty upon them to constructively communicate on the issue of the college attendance. It is obviously preferable that divorced parents strive to rise above their differences and focus the common love they share for their child to reach a resolution of the issue. A teenage child should not be acting as a go between his or her parents because they can no longer talk to each other regarding the issue of college selection and the payment of the related costs. If the parties cannot agree, then it is often left for the court’s to decide and “the courts recognize that two responsible parents are usually better equipped than a judge to decide what is best for their children.” Giangeruso v. Giangeruso, 310 N.J. Super. 476 (Ch. Div. 1997)

One New Jersey family court judge, Hon. Lisa F. Chrystal, P.J.F.P., in Union County I have noticed often likes to caution litigants who cannot resolve their issues of the fact: “No stranger in a judicial robe, however able and well-motivated he or she may be, is equipped to make a decision as valid as the parents working together might make.” Tahan v. Duquette, 259 N.J.Super. 328, 336, (App.Div.1992). The Appellate Division in the above cited case went on to wisely state: “Both Mr. Tahan and Ms. Duquette must come to understand that security, peace of mind and stability are every child’s right. Their inability to deal constructively with each other deprives their son of his due, which is within their power to give. Professed love is no substitute where it results in turmoil and uncertainty for the child who is pulled in opposite directions by his parents. This child will receive what he desperately needs in this regard only if both parties are genuinely prepared to subordinate their individual needs to the best interests of the child and begin to communicate with each other solely for the benefit of the child. We urge the parties to make an effort to resolve this matter between themselves with professional assistance. Otherwise, there is a substantial risk that they will doom their child to a future of conflict, sadness and certain psychological harm.” Id.

It is important for parents not to repeat the mistakes of the past parties now memorialized in the court’s published decisions and seek out just resolutions before running up the courthouse steps.