Extracurricular Activities, Graduate School on the Line in New Jersey Child Support Decisions

In New Jersey, two recently decided court cases show just far-reaching state family law is concerning the burden of parents to pay child support costs, especially in the area of education.

In the first of these new and notable cases, a two-judge appellate panel of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled last month that a father must pay 50% of his daughter’s law school tuition bill because of an agreement contained in his divorce decree. According to the National Law Journal, the father in this case had agreed in his divorce terms to shoulder half the cost of his daughter’s higher education (see our related article, “Who Pays for College?“. At the time of his divorce, his daughter had just graduated from Rutgers University with her undergraduate degree. When she announced, following the divorce, that she had been admitted to Cornell Law School, which costs $225,000 to attend, the father offered $7500 per year, the equivalent cost of instate tuition at Rutgers Law School.

As the Journal reports:

John Livingston and ex-wife Patricia Rossi divorced in 2009 after 26 years of marriage. They have two adult children. The daughter, identified only as J. in court records, graduated from Rutgers University several months before the divorce.

The settlement stipulated that the mother and father each would pay 50 percent of J.’s law school costs after scholarships were factored in, as long as she maintained a C average. Just before the divorce, however, the daughter cut off all communication with Livingston.

Several law schools accepted the daughter in 2012 and she chose Cornell, even though the school offered her no scholarship. The annual cost for tuition, books and living expenses would be $74,580, according to the opinion. Livingston declined to pay a portion of her costs when asked, but offered to contribute $7,500 a year if the daughter went to Rutgers School of Law instead and lived at home. He complained that his daughter had not consulted him in her law school choice.

Rossi in September 2012 asked a court to enforce the settlement, and Livingston filed a cross-motion seeking to have the law school language vacated or modified. The trial court judge sided with Rossi.

Livingston appealed, and lost. The Court ruled that because his divorce settlement obliges him to pay half — 50 percent — he is responsible for approximately $112,500 to help his daughter attend Cornell.

In the second case, involving a dispute over extracurricular activities, the father of an accomplished fencer attempt to get out of paying for tournament, equipment and other costs even after signing off an agreement in his divorce that he pay for all “reasonable extracurricular activities,” was stopped by a NJ appeals court.

According to the New Jersey Law Journal, plaintiff Jayne Valenti and defendant David Bassinder never married but in 1985 had a son. When they ended their relationship in 2008, Bassinder agreed to pay $1,200 a week in child support and $1,800 a month to cover Valenti’s mortgage. Bassinder also agreed to cover his son’s educational expenses, which included the $25,000-a-year tuition at a Monmouth County prep school, and “reasonable extracurricular activities.

In 2010 and 2011, Bassinder paid for or reimbursed Valenti for fencing costs, which included tens of thousands of dollars for equipment, coaching, camps, lessons and out-of-state tournaments. In July 2012, Valenti asked Bassinder to reimburse her for the $2,953 it cost to send the son to a national fencing competition in California.

Following this, a court motion was filed in which Bassinder demanded an accounting of all the child support he had paid to Valenti for the previous year. He also said it was “not reasonable” to expect him to cover the costs of all the tournaments. Valenti argued that this dispute over the fencing costs was related to other disagreements the two were having, and not about the money and payments.

Ocean County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Wauters sided with Valenti, finding there were no changed circumstances justifying refusal to pay. Bassinder appealed, but Appellate Division Judges Mitchel Ostrer and Harry Carroll affirmed on March 6 that he still needs to pay for his son’s extracurricular expenses.

“In this case, the undisputed evidence established that defendant reimbursed plaintiff for [the son’s] tournament expenses from as early as November 2010 through early 2012,” they wrote inValenti v. Bassinder.

The takeaway here for any parent concerned about affording child support payments? Read the fine print carefully on any divorce or child support document before signing.