Talk about sticker shock.  A New Jersey father was recently ordered to pay more than $112,000 for his daughter to attend Cornell Law School.

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But is it really shocking?  The parties’ divorce agreement, entered into in 2009, did provide that the parents would split the cost of law school provided that she maintained over a ‘C’ average.  After all, isn’t that what agreements are for?  To be upheld and enforced?

There was a wrinkle, however.   At the time of the divorce, the daughter had already been emancipated.  In years that followed, father and daughter had a falling out. There was therefore no communication regarding the choice of law school or the daughter’s decision to attend Cornell.  Also, the daughter waited about three years from her college graduation date to enroll in law school in order to take time off and work.

While the parties’ attorneys attempted to settle the dispute, it was to no avail.  Apparently, the mother rebuffed the father’s offers to pay $7,500 per year toward Rutgers Law School, provided that the daughter lived at home with the mother and provided the father with weekly updates as to her progress.

Ultimately, he was ordered by the trial court to pay one-half of the daughter’s tuition at Cornell Law School.  The Appellate Division upheld that decision in light of his clear agreement at the time of the divorce to pay half of law school.

In that regard, the Appellate Division stated:

Where a settlement agreement is used to define the terms of a divorce, the agreement should be “‘entitled to considerable weight with respect to [its] validity and enforceability’ in equity, provided [it is] fair and just.” … We find nothing unfair or unjust in enforcement of paragraph 7 of the parties’ divorce settlement agreement as they executed it.

But is it fair and just?  The father, a Rutgers University professor, did offer to pay a portion of the cost of Rutgers University Law School, a state school, whose total cost is approximately $22,000 per year.

By contrast, Business Insider ranks Cornell – total tuition $76,680 – as #7 in their list of Top 10 Most Expensive Law Schools, broken down as follows:

Tuition:  $55,220

Living, Transportation & Personal Expenses: $16,250

Health Insurance:  $2,110

Books, Supplies & Computer:  $3,100

Blowing Your Life Savings On A Law Degree In One Of The Toughest Markets For Lawyers In History: Priceless?

While the total price of tuition may seem like a swift punch to the gut, it may sit even worse when you realize that chances are that the daughter, who was admitted into a prestigious Ivy League institution, would have received a scholarship at Rutgers.

In these tough economic times, especially when law degrees may not be as valuable as they were once thought to be, does it make sense for parents to be compelled to pay for pricey education, especially when he or she had no chance to put their foot down and say “no, it’s just too expensive”? Is an agreement to pay for half of law school and invitation for the child to attend any law school, without regard for the cost or the financial toll the decision will take on her parents?

Interstingly, this story has just gained national attention in the wake of on Tuesday mornings ruling by a Superior Court judge in Morris County refused to order a Lincoln Park couple to pay private school and college tuition for their 18-year-old daughter who moved out of their house and is suing for financial support.  See Robert Epstein’s recent post on the issue here.

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Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

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