Attending college can be one of the most important steps in a young person’s life. But as a divorced or separated parent, you may wonder about your obligation to pay your child’s college tuition. Who pays for college after divorce? How are tuition costs shared? What’s fair — for you, and for your child’s other parent? And what about your child? As a young adult, isn’t your child automatically emancipated?
New Jersey’s Child Emancipation Law Change
In general, emancipation is the act by which a parent is relieved of the duty to support a child because the child has moved beyond “the sphere of influence” of their parents. For years, child emancipation was a murky issue in New Jersey. Many parents of college students questioned how their child — living in the dorms for most of the year, sometimes thousands of miles away if they attended college out of state — could still be considered under their influence. In February 2017, however, a new law was enacted to bring further clarity to emancipation. In New Jersey today, a child is automatically considered emancipated upon the child’s nineteenth birthday unless:
– The child is still in high school, or attends a vocational or technical school, or is enrolled full-time in a college undergraduate or graduate program.
– The child suffers from a documented mental or physical disability that requires ongoing support.
– An existing child support order specifies a certain age or cut off date.
For parents making decisions about college costs, this new laws helps to more definitively answer the question of whether or not your child can be considered emancipated. If your child plans to attend college full-time, then the courts will hold that your child is not emancipated and is still your dependent. You will need to contribute to your child’s upkeep, whether this comes in the form of child support or tuition sharing — or both. Under the new legislation, however, there is no financial support required by a parent after their child turns 23 years old, regardless of whether the child is still in college or not.
How Courts Determine Parent College Tuition Obligations
Most divorce settlement agreements contain some language that addresses college decisions and payments and most say that both parents have some sort of financial responsibility to pay for college. College tuition obligations are entirely separate from child support.
The exact amount that a parent will be required to pay towards their child’s college tuition is usually calculated at the time a college is chosen and is based upon mom and dad’s salaries at that time. In the process of divorce? As you negotiate this language, it’s never a good idea to agree to a straight 50/50 split of college tuition at the time of divorce, especially if your children are very young. You never know what your financial situation will be ten, even fifteen years into the future.
Some parents may be able to reach a compromise over college cost sharing on their own out of court, usually with the help of their attorneys or a mediator. When college tuition matters end up in court, a judge will evaluate a parent’s contribution toward the cost of higher education by weighing relevant factors, including:
- Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
- The effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
- The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
- The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
- The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
- The financial resources of both parties;
- The commitment and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
- The financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
- The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
- The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
- The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and
- The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.
If the parties have the ability to pay for college, or a portion thereof, it is likely that in the State of New Jersey, it will be Ordered. Sometimes a judge will look to see the family history, such as if the parents made contributions for an older child while the family was still in-tact. The history of the parent’s education is an important element as well. If both parents have college degrees, seeming to illustrate that they are strong advocates for higher education, there is a strong possibility that the court will direct the parents to support the child’s path through college as well.
Other Sources for College Tuition Payments
If a child has custodial accounts that have been set aside to apply toward higher education costs and expenses, those would likely first be utilized before either parent is assessed a payment contribution. A student is expected to maintain a reasonable course load to illustrate a devotion to his or her studies. Should the student work on vacations or during breaks and summers, that income may be applied toward entertainment expenses rather than toward tuition. However, if the student is working full-time during the school year, then it may be reasonable to expect that the income earned be contributed toward educational or living expenses. Still, parents must recognize that the fact that a student is capable of earning income is not a substitute for a divorced parent’s obligation to contribute to a student’s support.
Evaluating a Parent’s Ability to Pay College Tuition Costs
All financial resources of the parties should be assessed so as to determine if the assets need to be invaded to make the payments should income not be available. This would include equity in a home, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, savings bonds, retirement funds, business interests, life insurance cash value, etc. If one party is spending lavishly on expensive cars, boats, collectibles or vacations, while claiming that there is no available money to assist in college tuition, a court should be advised of these significant details.
Divorced parents in the State of New Jersey are expected to experience an economic sacrifice for their children in order to provide them a college education. Courts also refrain from using the cost of attending Rutgers or any other State University or college as an artificial ceiling on college contributions.
Paying College Tuition for an Estranged Child
Lastly on the issue of contribution, the parties want to set forth whether there is a relationship between the child and the parent. It is not to say that if one parent was involved less in the decision-making process for colleges that the parent will be absolved of all payment contribution responsibility or if the parent has not spoken to the child in a year that the parent will be able to avoid contributions. This is a subjective standard. Many judges look to this factor to see if the parent has made any effort to integrate into the child’s life or if the parent has purposely been removed. If the parent’s lack in relationship can be deemed contributory, then it will be hard for the parent to point fingers and suggest that the lack in relationship should be a reason to avoid payment.
New Jersey is a progressive State in supporting a child’s right to higher education. Parents having separated or divorced will find it difficult in this State to evade contributions.
Answers to Your College Tuition Questions
If you are getting ready to send your child off to college this fall, or if your child is already in the midst of their college education and you have questions about your obligations and rights, our skilled and knowledgeable can give you answers and help you devise a clear strategy for achieving your goals. We understand how dear your children are to you, and we also understand the realities of college tuition costs. Contact us to set up an initial consultation with an attorney.
Take the first step. Call us today: (888) 888-0919.