Many couples in the midst of a divorce have very young children. As a result, the issue of funding their children’s college education is typically reserved until the child is of college age. Parties typically agree to include language in their Property Settlement Agreement wherein they will exchange income information and begin discussions regarding the child’s college expenses during the child’s junior year of high school. This makes sense because after all, no one can predict their financial future. Fast forward 15 years, the child is about to begin the process of applying to college. The parties have informal discussions, sans counsel, regarding their respective contributions. The custodial parent accepts the non-custodial parent’s contribution for a few years then decides it is just not enough. Can the custodial parent seek a retroactive contribution toward the child’s college expenses?

The Appellate Division just answered this very question in the unpublished decision of Kmetz v. Fusaro, Decided October 9, 2009, Docket No. A-5870-07T3. In Kmetz v. Fusaro, the parties divorced when their daughter was 9. Their Property Settlement Agreement includes the following clause “The parties acknowledge their desire of the child to attend college or other post graduate professional schooling consistent with the child’s ability and the parent’s financial means. Each party agrees to assist the child in such endeavor and to contribute according to their then available means after all available financial aid, scholarships and part-time and summer earnings.”

The parties’ daughter attended college immediately following high school graduation. The Father voluntarily paid $1,500 each year toward his daughter’s freshman and sophomore year college costs. In the summer between the daughter’s sophomore and junior year, the Mother asked Father to increase his contribution. Father increased said contribution to $2,000 that year. In the middle of the daughter’s junior year, Mother retained an attorney who contacted Father seeking an additional contribution toward the college expenses. Ultimately, Mother filed a motion with the trial court seeking contribution, in proportion to income, toward the daughter’s college costs for her freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. The trial court granted Mother’s request and ordered Father to pay 68 percent of his daughter’s college costs for all four years.

The Appellate Division, relying upon Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535 (2006) and Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), concluded that Father  should not have to contribute toward the college costs of his daughter’s freshman, sophomore and first semester junior year. Reason being, Mother accepted Father’s voluntary contributions for the aforementioned years.   Suffice it to say, if you are the custodial parent of a child on the heels of the college application process, it is essential that you discuss the funding of your child’s college education with your ex-spouse. If you are unable to reach a resolution, it is imperative that you seek the Court’s assistance prior to your child’s first day of college.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  To avoid the typical complaints about lack of consultation and lack of notice, the custodial parent should also involve the non-custodial parent in the process as early in college selection process, as possible, and put the communications in writing.  Perhaps the non-custodial parent should be invited to make college visits with the custodial parent and the child or otherwise, should be invited to take the child to other colleges for visits.  In fact, the other parent should be solicited for schools that he/she would suggest being considered.  The more that is done in this regard, the less the other side can object to and as such, the review becomes a financial one, as opposed to dealing with some of the other extraneous issues that often come up.  ERIC S. SOLOTOFF