For a divorced parent paying child support, facing additional financial responsibility for the cost of the child’s college expenses can be daunting. Private colleges can average tuition at $35,000 per year. Even in-state tuition at a state university can cost more than $10,000 annually. Depending on the state, divorced parents may continue to be financially responsible for a child’s educational costs even through college.

Many New Jersey judges have ruled that parents paying child support will be required to contribute toward the cost of a college education. Viewing college as a necessity to allow individuals to advance their careers and become self-supporting, New Jersey courts have found that parents who have the financial ability to pay for college must do so in most circumstances. The court may compel the parents to contribute an amount in proportion to the parents’ income.

When the parents themselves are professionals, New Jersey courts also have extended the responsibility to include the cost of a graduate education when the child can demonstrate a reasonable expectation of higher education given the family culture. In those circumstances where it appears that the parents would have contributed to the cost of a post-college degree had the marriage remained intact, many judges find an obligation to do so.

Tuition v. Support

Although child support may not necessarily include the cost of college tuition, that does not mean that the parent paying child support will no longer have to make any child support payments once the child starts college. Child support payments generally include the costs of food, shelter, and clothing, which will remain a need for the child regardless of whether they are attending college. Payments for support will continue until the time set forth in the divorce agreement or judgment, or otherwise set forth by the law.

Divorce Agreements

Issues involving ongoing payments for a child’s educational expenses can be resolved in the language of divorce agreements or judgments. Many divorce judgments or agreements will include specific provisions that set forth the parents’ responsibilities with respect to college costs. Courts may honor the language in divorce agreements and follow the language of divorce judgments in determining whether college tuition is a responsibility of one specific parent.

Amount of Required Parental Contribution

If an exact amount or percentage is not specified by the divorce agreement or divorce judgment, the court will examine a variety of factors in determining the amount that a parent must contribute for college costs.

The New Jersey Supreme Court set forth these factors in the case of Newburgh v. Arrigo. They include:

  • Whether the parent would have contributed to the costs of the requested higher education if the marriage had remained intact
  • The financial resources for both parents and child, including income, assets, expenses, and debts
  • The ability of the parent to contribute the requested amount
  • The total amount of contribution requested by the child
  • The pre-divorce standard of living
  • The reasonableness of the amount given the commitment and aptitude of the child for the requested higher education
  • The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on school breaks, such as summer vacation
  • The availability of financial aid, including college grants, student loans, and parent loans
  • The child’s relationship with each parent, including whether there are shared goals, mutual affection, and the child’s responsiveness to parental advice and guidance