Courts Can Order
Parents to Pay for
New Jersey permits its courts to decide whether divorced parents are obligated to pay their child’s college expenses. Our courts are not, however, permitted to interfere with the responsibility of parents to pay for their child’s college in an intact family.
When a child reaches the age of majority, the child is considered “emancipated.” This generally frees the parents of any further support obligations. Some states like New Jersey, however, have statutes that allow a divorce court to impose upon the parents, the duty to provide for college support beyond “emancipation.” In fact, New Jersey is one of the most liberal jurisdictions in the nation, in terms of post-high school financial duties of parents.
In the past, New Jersey courts have held that only “in appropriate circumstances” should a parent be compelled to contribute to a child’s higher education after the child has reached the age of majority. When evaluating the “appropriate circumstances,” the factors that the Court must consider include (1) whether the parent would have contributed if still married; (2) the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent; (3) the amount of contribution sought; (4) the ability of the parent to pay; (5) the relationship of the contribution to the course of study; (6) the financial resources of both parents; (7) the educational commitment of the child; (8) the financial resources of the child; (9) the ability of the child to earn income; (10) the availability of financial aid; (11) the child’s relationship to the parent; and (12) the relationship of the education to the overall long-range goals of the child.
Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court was faced with an issue that could take these factors even one step further. On January 30, 2006, the Court heard oral argument in the case of Gac v. Gac. The issue presented was whether a divorced father can be forced to contribute retroactively towards his daughter’s college loans where the father had no relationship with his daughter since she was five years old.
The Court has not yet issued a decision on the matter, but there are two pertinent issues, based on constitutional grounds, that can be gleaned from the case. The first one is the right of our courts to interfere in the obligation of a parent to pay for college when that parent is divorced, yet not interfere in the parent’s obligation when part of an intact family.
The second issue questions whether a parent is responsible to retroactively contribute to college loan payments in certain circumstances. In this case, there are two factors involved: the parent had no knowledge the child was incurring the loans and the parent had no relationship with the child.
We can expect the decision to have a significant impact on children and divorced parents throughout the state. It may encourage the parties to actively foster the parent-child relationship if the relationship could influence future financial obligations. On the other hand, the decision may have the effect of minimizing the parent-child relationship, if the Court determines that a parent, who does not have a relationship with the child, is still obligated to pay for college or college loans.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Gac v. Gac will help establish the limits of our State’s authority to interfere in a parent’s obligation toward the child’s college expenses.
Lindsey D. Moskowitz, Esq. is an associate in the family law practice at Szaferman Lakind Blumstein Blader & Lehman, PC., 101 Grovers Mill Road, Lawrenceville. 609-275-0400. Fax: 609-275-4511.