Divorced Parents: Can You Withhold Tuition Payments If You Don’t Like Your Child’s College Choice?

college education and divorceHow much sway do divorced parents ordered to share in the cost of their child’s college tuition have over the school the child chooses to attend? A recent court case takes a look. 

In the case in question, Ferrara v. Ferrara, a father had filed numerous motions regarding his child’s attendance at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, believing that because he was not consulted about the choice of school and that, academically, the school was “out of reach” for his daughter, he should not be obligated to pay. Despite this belief, the child succeeded at Stevens, and the father, pursuant to the parties’ property settlement agreement, was ordered, time and time again, to pay his respective share of the daughter’s college expenses.

The parties’ divorce settlement agreement was clear: both mother and father would contribute to the costs of college based on their proportionate incomes at the time. The agreement also stated that the parties would discuss, with the child, her options and choices for schools. Sadly, after the divorce, the father and child’s relationship deteriorated to the point where there was no communication, except through court litigation.

Because of the lack of relationship, the child did not discuss her college options with her father, causing him to accuse her of violating the intent of the settlement agreement by “excluding him from participating in the decision making process about which college she would attend.”

The appellate court disagreed, stating that the father had been “the architect of his own exclusion from his daughter’s life” and found that his numerous court filings were “replete with needlessly strident language questioning her intellectual abilities.”

The child succeeded at Stevens and maintained a “C” or better average, as per the trial court’s order earlier in 2014. In his court papers, the father claimed this academic success was “out of spite” on his daughter’s part. In its ruling, the appellate division upheld the father’s obligation to contribute his share of the costs of the child’s education and stated, “At this stage of her life, the parties can offer advice and emotional support to their daughter. The bilateral nature of this contract requires the parents to honor their financial commitment…[while] the child had the commensurate obligation to pursue the educational opportunity her parents have provided her by carrying out her academic responsibilities to the best of her abilities.”

The court noted that perhaps the reason why the parents viewed their daughter’s academic ability so differently was because the relationship between her and her father was so damaged, stating that the “traditional means a father uses to communicate with his child” such as face-to-face discussions, phone calls or even text messages, “had been replaced by the litigation model of conflict resolution.” Despite the breakdown of their relationship, the court did not find it fair to punish the child by forcing her to attend a different school, simply because Stevens was not discussed with her father.

Do you have questions about your child’s college choice and what this means for your divorce agreement? We are here to help. To speak with one of our skilled family law attorneys, please contact us to schedule your confidential consultation. 

college tuition and divorce