“Caitlyn’s parents Maura and Michael were young loves. Their marriage only lasted two and a half years but the two say they amicably parented to give their daughter the best life they could.” ABC News Anchor, Wendy Saltzman, reported on last night’s news.

Caitlyn’s parents became estranged from their daughter when “Instead of following our rules, she decided she is going to leave her mother’s house where she was living and move in with her grandparents.”

When it came time for Caitlyn to apply to colleges, her parents made a joint decision they would not contribute to the cost of Caitlyn’s college education unless she attended a college in the State of New Jersey.

Despite not having meaningfully spoken with her parents in over two years, at age 21, Caitlyn approached her parents to contribute to the cost of Temple University, a Pennsylvania State School.

When her parents jointly refused, Caitlyn filed a Motion to intervene in her parents’ divorce action so that she could sue them for the cost of college.  The Court granted Caitlyn’s Motion and the lawsuit went forward with Caitlyn as an intervening party.

On October 31, 2014, a Camden County, New Jersey Court required Caitlyn’s parents to pay $16,000 toward her college tuition at Temple.  This Order was entered without any hearing.

Copyright: zimmytws / 123RF Stock Photo

From a legal perspective, this decision may problematic on several fronts.

We all know that divorced parents in New Jersey are required to pay for college on behalf of their children under the landmark 1982 case, Newburgh v. Arrigo.  The theory is that college is a necessity and divorced parents should pay as a facet of their obligation to provide support to their children.

Among Newburgh’s twelve enumerated factors that a court must consider prior to apportioning college contribution between parents are the following: (1) whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education; and (11) the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.

As to the eleventh factor, we have seen New Jersey Courts previously deny college contributions on the basis of an estranged relationship between parent and child.

For example, in Gac v. Gac, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that in certain circumstances an estranged non-custodial parent should not be obligated to pay for college.  The Court must examine the following issues:

(a)        What caused the breakdown in the parent-child relationship;

(b)        Whether it is the child that has alienated the non-custodial parent; and

(c)        Whether the non-custodial parent was consulted on the child’s choice of college.

Similarly, in Dahms v. DeSanto, a 2007 Appellate Division Case, the Court reversed a trial court’s decision to compel an alienated non-custodial mother to contribute to the cost of her child’s college education.  On remand, the trial court was required to specifically consider:

(a)        The mother’s limited financial resources;

(b)        The impact of the estrangement and the decision to exclude the mother from the college selection process;

(c)        The root factors as to the breakdown; and

(d)       The lack of evidence of the parents’ agreement to pay for college.

Most recently, in the case of Black v. Black, which I blogged on several months ago, the Court held that while it would enforce an estranged father’s prior  obligation to contribute toward his son’s college costs, such obligation was expressly contingent upon the son’s reciprocal obligation to actively commence and attend joint counseling for the father.

Thus, while Caitlyn’s lawyer, Andrew Rochester, stated, “The law in New Jersey is so clear. It is cut and dry. The law says parents are supposed to contribute to their children’s post-secondary expenses,” an examination of the case law demonstrates this is not so.

The fact is that accordingly to precedent is that New Jersey Courts must carefully examine the issues surrounding the breakdown of the parent-child relationship prior to apportioning college costs.  Here, there was no hearing, no examination of who was at fault for the breakdown, evidence that the parents were not consulted and their opinions not respected.

Moreover, there was no indication that the Court made the parents’ payments conditional upon Caitlyn’s effort to repair the relationship, perhaps even as a condition of the contribution, as in Black.  Rather, all we have here are wildly differing versions of what happened.

However, what I find most striking is the Court did not extensively consider the first Newburgh factor: (1) whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education.

Oftentimes, an examination of this factor requires the Court to speculate as to what the parents would have done had they stayed together and made a joint parenting decision. A typical situation is that a custodial parent seeks contribution from the non-custodial parent because they are unable to come to an agreement and they invite the Court to resolve the dispute on their behalf.

But in this case it seems that the parents were on the same page; there was no need for the Court to speculate as to what their joint decision would have been.  It was the child, Caitlyn, who disagreed with her parents’ joint decision.  The parents were united.

From a Constitutional perspective, therefore, this situation hearkens back to the age-old questions “why do divorced parents have an obligation to contribute to college, but intact parents do not?” Eric Solotoff blogged about this conundrum on March 13, 2014 when Rachel Canning’s story hit the news (remember – that teen who sought and failed to compel her married parents to contribute to her education?).

It seems that the simple act of the parents’ divorce exposed them to an obligation to contribute to their child’s college education even when they were in complete agreement no to contribute.

The parents have stated that they plan to appeal.  It will be interesting to see what the Appellate Division does with this case, particularly because the facts are so unique.

Meanwhile, Caitlyn’s parents were to pay the cost of her tuition yesterday but have stated they will not pay a dime until their daughter re-reestablishes a relationship with them.

Baer, Eliana T.

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.