As many parents get ready to send their children off to college, those who are collecting child support from a non custodial parent wonder how their child support may be affected. The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are applicable when computing child support for children who are less than 18 or more than 18 and attending high school and living at home. What, then, happens to child support when a child leaves for college? The guidelines specifically state that they should not be used to determine parental contributions for college or other post secondary education. As an exception, they may be applied when a child is living at home and commuting to college. Over the years, courts have taken an inconsistent view as to how child support should be calculated for children living away at school. In the recent, published ( precedential) case of Jacoby v. Jacoby, the NJ Appellate Division addressed this issue.
In the Jacoby case, the parties who were divorced had two children. When the oldest matriculated at college, the non-custodial father moved to reduce his child support obligation to Ms. Jacoby since the child no longer resided in his mother’s house. The trial judge granted his application, and reduced the child support by employing a formula in which the judge calculated child support for two children, and then one child. The judge then took the difference of these two sums and determined 38% of the difference and 25% of the calculated remainder These two sums were then added and set as support. Essentially, what the trial court did was to recognize that child support is comprised of three broad categories: fixed costs – those costs that are incurred even when child is not residing at home. An example is housing related expenses; variable costs – those costs which are incurred only when the child is with the parent ( food is an example); and controlled Costs – costs which are incurred by the primary caretaker of the child, such as clothing and entertainment. The court then presumed there was a lower amount of variable and controlled costs when the child was away at college and reduced support accordingly.
When the second child matriculated, Mr. Jacoby again sought a reduction. A different judge heard the application and denied Mr. Jacoby’s request. He then appealed.
The Appellate Court noted that when determining child support for a child living away at college, the amount is to be set in light of all the surrounding circumstances of the parties and the children. While the attendance at college is a change of circumstances which warrant a review of support obligations, there is not a presumption that there should be a reduction, or that the need for support lessens simply because the child is away at college.
So what does this mean as a practical matter? in many households, intact or otherwise, the expense of college necessitates a change in expenditures. That does not mean, however, that many expenses associated with child rearing go away. As the court noted in Jacoby, in fact, there are expenses which go up, some which are new, and many which remain. The court also pointed out that many expenses which are necessary for a child at college are not mentioned in the child support guidelines, thereby underscoring the mistake in simply extrapolating some categories of spending from them and subtracting those from a child support obligation. This decision is another in which the courts have shied away from formulaic methods to set support and allow judges to decide each individual case on its facts. That said, the notion that support should be reduced when a child goes away to college may not be the case anymore. In fact, if people were hoping for a uniform answer as to how to figure out child support for childen in college, no uniform answer exists.