by Maria P. Imbalzano, Esq.
One of the most contentious issues between parties post-divorce is how much each parent must pay toward their children’s college education expenses. With the cost of a college education at a private institution approximating $200,000 for four years, there is little wonder why divorced parents disagree over apportionment. Hand in hand with this issue is how much a parent should pay in child support, in addition to college education costs, to support their children. Since college education costs include room and board if the child attends college away from home, shouldn’t child support, which covers housing and food costs, be reduced when the child moves away from home?
Until recently, most courts did reduce a parent’s child support obligation if that parent was contributing to college education expenses including room and board. However, in the case of Jacoby v. Jacoby, decided recently by the New Jersey Appellate Division, the Court stated that there is no presumption that a child’s required financial support lessens just because that child is attending college and living on campus.
In New Jersey, we have Child Support Guidelines to help us determine what the appropriate amount of child support is. These Guidelines assume relative spending on children in three broad categories of expenses: fixed costs, which include housing-related expenses such as mortgage or rent, utilities, household furniture and furnishings and household care items; variable costs, which include food and transportation; and controlled costs, which include clothing, personal care items, entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses. Our Guidelines apply to children under 18, or those over 18 if they are still attending high school. The Guidelines do not apply to children attending college. Further, if the parties’ combined net income is over $187,200, the Guidelines do not apply.
So how is child support determined for a child in college and living on campus? In order to answer this, we must look to the child support statute as well as case law, which advises us to analyze all of the financial circumstances of both parties and the child, as well as the child’s abilities.
While it is clear that a child’s room and board covers the child’s living and food costs while away at college, the parent of primary residence still must pay for that child’s housing and food expenses when the child returns home on weekends, school breaks or the summer. Some expenses may remain the same such as car payments, insurance, gasoline, clothing, haircuts, telephone, and toiletries. Some expenses may increase, such as bedding and linens, furnishings or appliances for dorm room set-up, luggage and other moving supplies. Entertainment expenses may also be more at college.
All of the above must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis along with the child’s contribution, if any. A child may have savings or earnings from summer jobs, work-study, or part-time employment to help pay for some of their expenses. Also important in determining the parents’ available income is what portion, if any of the child’s college expenses, is covered by scholarships, grants, student loans, or prior savings through 529 plans or accounts in the children’s names.
As can be seen, this is not an easy analysis and full financial disclosure as well as complete costs for the child must be evaluated to determine the appropriate amount of child support for a child attending college.
Maria P. Imbalzano is a Shareholder in the Divorce and Family Law Group of Stark & Stark. She is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Attorney and is a Court Approved Mediator. 993 Lenox Drive, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648. 609-896-9060. www.njdivorceattorney.com.