Recently, I addressed the question as to when a child is emancipated under the eyes of New Jersey law.  As I indicated there, the New Jersey Supreme Court defines emancipation as "the act by which a parent relinquishes the right to custody and is relieved of the duty to support a child."  Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982). A related question also addressed by the Court in Newburgh is a parent’s obligation to contribute towards a child’s postgraduate education expenses.

The Supreme Court in Newburgh set forth a non-exhaustive list of factors for a court to consider in determining a parent’s obligation to contribute to such educational expenses.  These factors were subsequently codified by statute at N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) as follows:

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 parties.

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 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.

12. The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

This issue recently was addressed in the unpublished Appellate Division decision of Subbie v. Subbie.  The facts are relatively straightforward except for the fact that the parties were married and divorced to each other twice.  They had three children, a son and two daughters.  While the divorce complaint was pending in May 2006, the Wife sought interim, pendente lite relief for the children’s college expenses.  An Order was subsequently entered by the trial court directing the Husband to reimburse the Wife for $1,800 towards their son’s 2005-06 college tuition, and also ordered an equal sharing of said costs through May 2007.  All other relief on this issue sought by the Wife was denied pending a plenary hearing.

Months later, the Wife filed a motion to enforce litigant’s rights because the Husband failed to reimburse her the $1,800 previously ordered.  The Husband then cross-moved to emancipate the son, who was in his fifth year of college, and to re-compute his child support obligation.  The Court found the Husband in violation of litigant’s rights, granted counsel fees, and reserved the issues of emancipation and recalculation of support to the plenary hearing. 

Following the plenary hearing, the trial court held that had the marriage remained intact, both parents – each of whom had college degrees – would have expected their daughter to attend college and that they each possessed the financial means to assist with college costs and would have contributed accordingly.  The trial court also noted that the Husband should contribute $6,000 based on his financial ability despite his strained relationship with the daughter and that the cost to attend her school of choice – NYU – was beyond both parents’ financial means.  The trial court further ordered that the Husband was still required to reimburse the $1,800 (with interest) for the son’s college previously ordered, but that he did not have to pay for the son’s fifth year of college.

On appeal, the Appellate Division held that the trial court properly considered the factors outlined above in concluding that the Husband:  (1) could contribute towards the daughter’s higher education expense; (2) recognized that she would be attending college based on her academic achievements; (3) did not object to her attending college, but rather the actual college selection; and (4) the relationship between them was not always strained and, in actuality, was strained due to the divorce itself and the Husband’s failure to attempt to resolve any damage the divorce proceedings caused to his relationship with the children. 

The Appellate Division also concluded that the trial court properly found the son emancipated as of 2006 and that, as a result, the Husband’s child support obligation would decrease.  The Husband argued that the son should be declared emancipated sooner because he earned approximately $10,000 in 2005-06 and 2006-07; bought a new car; and incurred large credit card debt.  The trial court, however, noted that the Husband contributed to the son’s college expenses even while the son worked before the divorce and that the Wife simply wanted him to continue contributed the same amount that he did before the divorce transpired.  It also correctly concluded that the Husband should pay the $1,800 previously ordered because his failure to pay for same was in "flagrant violation" of that earlier Order.

Questions regarding emancipation and college expenses are especially relevant in light of the current economic environment.  Each situation is highly fact-specific, with an analysis of the above factors, as well as those discussed in my prior entry on emancipation.  Consulting with an experienced matrimonial attorney will assist in your evaluation on these difficult financial issues involving your children future and educational well being.

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