It seems with greater frequency, a divorced parent will argue that he should not have to pay for a child’s college (a New Jersey requirement) because he has a poor relationship with the child and, relatedly, had no say in the education decision making process (i.e., what college, at what cost, etc.).  Since a parent’s relationship with a child is only one factor to be considered in determining that parent’s obligation to pay for a child’s post-secondary education, this argument is usually unsuccessful in isolation due to the importance of a child obtaining a post-secondary degree.

In an interesting approach to get around the limited success rate surrounding this argument, the dad in Radcliffe v. Radcliffe, Jr., a newly unpublished (not precedential) decision from the Appellate Division, argued primarily that the parties’ settlement agreement required the child’s emancipation, which would extinguish his obligation to support the child and pay for his share of college.  When reviewing the facts of the case as presented in the decision, the father’s approach seemed dubious, and, as a result, the Appellate Division not only took him to task in reversing the trial court – which actually largely relied on the parent-child relationship in rendering its decision – but also commended the daughter’s conduct.

As a refresher, a court will deem a child emancipated if, based on existing facts and circumstances, the child has moved “beyond the sphere of parental influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own.”  A court will look at, among other things, the child’s needs, interests, independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability.

In Radcliffe, the parties agreement, as often occurs, specifically defined emancipation as follows:

a. The completion of the child’s formal education on a matriculated basis, whether it be graduation from a four year undergraduate school or high school. It is understood that as long as the child is diligently pursuing his or her formal education through a four year high school or a four year undergraduate college education, is obtaining passing grades, and is deemed by the college or school to be a full time student, the child shall not be considered emancipated.

b. Upon the completion of any of the prior segments of the child’s education and upon failure to commence the next segment of his or her education, or upon leaving school, the child shall be deemed emancipated. A child shall not be emancipated if one fails to continue his or her education because of some injury, illness or other cause beyond the child’s control.

c. The marriage of the child.

d. Entry into the military or armed forces of the child.

The parties also agreed to share the financial cost of college.

The facts here then take an interesting turn:

  • Daughter graduates from high school in June, 2012.
  • Prior to graduation, she was accepted at a private, out-of-state, 4-year college, which, after financial aid, would still cost $30,000 per year.
  • Recognizing her parents’ inability to afford this amount, daughter – one week after her high school graduation – enrolled in a 26 week “massage and bodywork program” at an accredited vocational institute.  With her massage therapist certification, daughter hoped to work during college and contribute to her education costs.  Tuition for the vocational program was $11,000.  Daughter took out a loan for $3,900 and asked her parents to fund the remaining portion.
  • After obtaining her massage therapist certification, daughter intended on enrolling at a county community college for the Spring 2013 semester.  She ultimately planned to attend community college for 2 years and then transfer to a New Jersey state, 4 year college or university so as to complete the last 2 years of her undergraduate education.  Community college cost $2,250 per semester, but, after the financial aid she received, would only cost $700 per semester.  While attending community college, daughter would continue to reside with mom and commute to school.
  • Daughter sent dad a copy of the tuition bill for the massage therapy program asking him to pay his portion.
  • Dad responded by filing a motion to emancipate his daughter, arguing that he had not had any contact with the daughter for the past 18 months, had not been consulted on her education plans, and, because daughter was not enrolled in a 4-year college, she should be deemed emancipated per the settlement agreement.
  • The trial court emancipated the daughter, thereby ending dad’s support and college obligation.  Mom appealed.

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Appellate Division repeatedly commended the daughter for what it described as her “innovative” plan, where there was “absolutely no break in her quest for a college degree.”  Specifically, the Court concluded that the daughter had not moved beyond that “sphere of influence,” as she was still living with mom, was still financially dependent on her parents, had only missed one semester of college so as to pursue her “quest,” and was doing everything she could to obtain that undergraduate degree, including pursuing full-time educational pursuits.

As to its interpretation of the contractual language in the parties’ settlement agreement, the Appellate Division concluded that the parties’ intended for the daughter to go to college, and even agreed to jointly fund the entire net cost of college expenses.  Lauding the daughter for her in-state college plan, rather than compelling her parents to fund an out-of-state private school education, the Court concluded that she would obtain that 4-year degree so long as everything went as planned.

The Court then moved onto the trial court’s decision, which relied primarily on dad’s argument that he should not have to pay due to the poor relationship he had with the daughter.  Ultimately, the Appellate Division found that the trial court’s reliance on this one single factor of the analysis I describe above was improper:

The child has a commitment to her education, a commitment to working during college to help pay her way, and a commitment to earning as much financial aid as possible to reduce her parents’ burden.  After considering all of these factors, we conclude they weigh substantially in favor of requiring defendant to pay his share of the daughter’s vocational school and college expenses.

Based on the specific facts at issue, the Appellate Division’s decision seems appropriate in rightfully rejecting dad’s efforts to avoid payment for the college expenses that he is obligated to pay in the State of New Jersey, and agreed to pay in the parties’ settlement agreement.