At the start of the week when most parents who have college students are writing that second semester check (gulp), the Appellate Division has decided a non precedential case in which a father objected to the trial court’s decision to make him pay 27% of his daughter’s college expenses at a private college. The case brings to the forefront situations in which the realities of limited available income come head to head with obligations for college expenses. Throw in a poor relationship between one parent and the college student, and you have a mess.
In the case of Caruso v. Whitlock, the father’s income was such that his basic child support obligation under the child support guidelines had been reduced as a result of the self support reserve. The self support reserve is a calculation in the child support guidelines which ensures that the obligor has sufficient income to maintain a basic subsistence level. So in other words, after child support, the obligor has to have left an amount which is 105% of the US poverty guideline.
The child in this case was enrolled in Rider University, a small private university without input from the father, with whom she did not have a good relationship. Both parents blames the other for the poor relationship. The judge took some testimony from the parties on the issues, but there was not a formal hearing. The daughter preferred a smaller college as opposed to Rutgers, the State University. The father stated that he wanted his daughter to go to college. The child received minimal financial assistance from the college and had some limited assets of her own.
The trial court ordered the father to pay 27% of the net college expenses which was based on the percentages from the child support worksheet that had been used the year before in an application for unreimbursed medical expenses. This came to approximately $6860 per year.
The Appellate Division reversed and remanded back to the trial court stating that the trial court had to make more specific findings in connection with the factors which have been set out in the case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 ( 1982). Those factors are:
(1) whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
(2) the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
(3) the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
(4) the ability of the parent to pay that cost;
(5) the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
(6) the financial resources of both parents;
(7) the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
(8) the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
(9) the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
(10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
(11) the child's relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and
(12) the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.
The Appellate court noted that when the college obligation was added to the father’s basic child support obligation, the overall amount would be increased by $132 per week, which is well above the basic obligation itself which was reduced by the self support reserve. The trial court had not sufficiently analyzed the father’s ability to pay. Moreover, there were other factors which the court had to revisit on remand including the relationship between the requested contribution to the kind of school sought be the child.
This case illustrates the pragmatic factors which face parents who have children in college as opposed to a rote application of the law and simply applying percentages. All too often, court's direct parties to pay for college when there is no real ability to pay, as if college is a mandatory obligation of all parents. At least this Appellate panel recognized that there has to be a real reconciliation of these difficult issues.