College costs have continued to climb at an alarming rate. A New Jersey Judge, however, has established parameters for how much a divorced parent is required to contribute to the cost of his or her child’s college education. The Honorable Lawrence Jones’s opinion in Black v. Black outlines practical factors that courts should consider when allocating funds between divorced parents for a child’s college tuition. In addition to the factors already set forth in the New Jersey Supreme Court case Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), the Black decision highlights the following factors:
The Parent-Child Relationship. In a situation where the parent-child relationship has been damaged, the court may order joint counseling to repair the relationship. Judge Jones acknowledges that in extreme cases, such as where sexual abuse occurred, a child will have good reason not to be in communication with his or her parent; however, in most instances, a parent-child relationship will be encouraged by the court. If the child refuses to attend counseling and resists having a relationship with his or her parent, the parent may make further application to suspend or terminate his obligation to pay for college expenses.
The Option of Attending State or Private Colleges. Another factor Judge Jones emphasizes is the child’s option to attend a less costly higher education institution. In Black, the child had attended Rutgers University, where tuition is $12,000/year, for his freshman year of college but he later expressed that he wished to transfer to the University of Miami, where tuition is $55,000/year. Judge Jones declared that a parent should not be forced to bankrupt himself so that he may have a child who attends college. The divorced parent should only be required to contribute what he or she is financially able to pay. If the child is unable to gather enough funds through grants, scholarships, and the parents’ contributions, then the child simply cannot attend that particular institution.
The Possibility that Younger Siblings May Attend College. The last factor Judge Jones considers is the possibility that other children, close in age to the child in college, may attend college. In this scenario, Judge Jones encourages the divorced couple to come up with a long-term financial strategy that will enable them to assist all of the children of the marriage to attend college. In Black, the parties were ordered to pay an affordable amount monthly or weekly for eight years and the funds were to be divided equally among the three children. If the children decide not to attend college, drop out of college, or attend college when they are emancipated, the parties may be entitled to a refund or a reallocation of the funds.
This case should have an impact on the way future cases involving a divorced parent’s financial contribution to a child’s college education will be litigated.