For a non-custodial parent, the rejection of a child is one of the most stressful and hurtful situations regardless of whether the deterioration in the relationship is the child’s fault, the custodial parent’s fault, the non-custodial parent’s fault or a combination of all three. Unfortunately, the bitterness often escalates when the child and custodial parent seek financial contribution for the child’s college education. Many non-custodial parents in these types of situation question whether or not they are legally obligated to contribute towards the college expenses of a child who refuses a relationship with them.
In Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), the New Jersey Supreme Court established twelve factors that a court shall examine in evaluating a claim for a contribution by a parent towards the costs of their child’s higher education. While all twelve factors must be weighed by the Court, a common issue raised by the non-custodial parent relates to factor eleven:
11. The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals, as well as responsiveness to the parental advice and guidance.
Many litigants assume that if there is a deterioration in the relationship between a non-custodial parent and a college-bound child, the non-custodial parent’s obligation to contribute towards college is terminated. However, in Gac v. Gac, 351 N.J. Super. 54 (App. Div. 2002), the Appellate Division held that while there are circumstances in which a child's rejection of their parent would warrant a dismissal of any obligation on their part to contribute to the child's college costs, a child’s rejection of a parent's attempt to establish a relationship does not immediately eradicate that parent’s obligation to contribute to college costs. For purposes of determining college contribution, the analysis is not simply whether there has been a breakdown in communication but whether a non-custodial parent can be required to contribute to his or her children’s college costs when communication between parent and child has been severed and, as a result, the parent has not been part of the college selection process or the child’s college progress.
For example, in the case of Moss v. Nedas, 289 N.J. Super. 352 (App. Div. 1996), the court found that the father was not obligated to contribute to his daughter’s education because the relationship between them had been severed by the daughter, because of the secretive nature with which she transferred schools and because he was not given any information concerning the child’s progress at school.
Likewise, in the unpublished decision of Agos v. Camuso, 2012 WL 3078929 (App.Div. July 31, 2012), in addition to the deterioration of the father-son relationship, the son and mother concealed from father the son’s college selection, Drexel University, concealed that the son would be enrolled in a five year engineering program and concealed the son’s living arrangements which impacted dad’s financial obligation. Notably, while the trial court, and later affirmed by the Appellate Division, found that dad would not be required to contribute towards the first year of college costs as a result of the son’s concealment, the Court did not automatically terminate father’s obligation for college contribution for future semesters but conditioned father’s ongoing obligation on son having meaningful and ongoing communication with the father regarding his college progress.
On the other hand, in another unpublished decision by the Appellate Division, the father had a close relationship with his daughter and had joint physical custody of her until her senior year of high school at which point, the daughter chose to reside with mom fulltime. Sciacca, Sciacca v. Hagarty, 2012 WL 127616 (App.Div. Jan. 18. 2012). Prior to the deterioration, dad participated in the daughter’s college preparation and college selection. Despite the rift between father and child, Dad was placed on full notice as to where the daughter had applied, the cost of attendance and where she would be attending school. The trial court found that dad was required to contribute towards the child’s college education costs despite the deterioration in the father-daughter relationship. The Appellate Division affirmed finding that dad was made fully aware and participated in the daughter’s college selection process. Moreover, they had a relationship until midway through the daughter’s senior year.
Thus, depending upon the severity of the deteriorated relationship and depending upon the existence of meaningful communication with the non-custodial parent about college selection and progress, a child’s refusal to have a relationship with a non-custodial parent may impact the parent’s obligation to help pay for that child’s college education. As stated in many of the blogs posted, each case is different and the ultimate outcome is heavily dependent upon the facts and analysis of the law.
As an aside, whether you are seeking college contribution or requesting that such obligation be terminated be mindful that most college tution payments are due in early August for the Fall Semester and late December for the Spring Semester, if Court intervention is required, if possible, hire an attorney at least four months prior to the payment deadlines. Otherwise, you may not have the Court's determination prior to the tution deadline.