In a recent decision, the appellate division has addressed the proper procedure for adjudicating a parent’s request to eliminate his obligation to pay child support and for college, when there is a question of whether the relationship with his child has been compromised.

In Zapata, v. Zapata, a father appealed the trial court orders denying his request to terminate his child support and his obligation to contribute to the college expenses of his daughter. The litigants had divorced in 2011 and had two children together. Their son became emancipated in 2014, at which time their daughter became a full-time college student at a private university.

When the parties divorced, they executed a property settlement agreement (PSA) which provided that their children’s college educations would first be funded by scholarships, available loans and savings allocated for college during the marriage. Thereafter, the parties agreed to contribute to college expenses in accordance with their ability to pay. Their PSA further addressed child support, which required the father to pay $246 per week for both children based upon the parents’ then-incomes.

The father filed a motion to terminate child support and his obligation to contribute to college in 2014. At that time, the parties’ son was deemed emancipated and the father and daughter were required to attend counseling. The trial court’s order further provided that the daughter’s failure to attend counseling would be deemed a waiver of her receipt of any continued college payments/support from her father. A total of five sessions were conducted and then counseling was terminated. The father claimed that the daughter terminated the sessions, whereas the daughter alleged that the sessions were jointly terminated by herself, her father and the counselor, who jointly felt they were no longer necessary.

Between 2014 and 2016, father and daughter had sporadic contact. In addition to the counseling sessions, the father had Christmas dinner with the daughter in 2015 and they exchanged text messages in 2016. He saw the daughter for her twentieth birthday but asked not to be invited to her birthday dinners again if he would be expected to pay. On her twenty-first birthday, the father emailed the daughter and signed it “your forgotten dad”. While the father characterized his relationship with his daughter as “strained” and accused her of refusing to communicate with him, the daughter characterized their relationship as “broken but not destroyed”.

Against this backdrop, the father filed a second motion to terminate his financial obligations in 2016. The mother cross-moved to enforce the child support obligation and compel the father to pay two-thirds of the daughter’s college costs, based upon her representation that the father earned double her income. In upholding the father’s support obligations, the trial court found that the father did not show a basis for altering the agreement reached in the PSA, or show that the daughter failed to comply with the 2014 order regarding counseling. The court further found that there was no change in circumstance warranting a modification of the support obligation. In doing so, the court only addressed the parent-child relationship factor of the test for determining college contributions set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo. The father filed a motion for reconsideration of this decision, which was denied.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling based upon several legal errors. First, the trial court erred by not conducting a plenary hearing regarding the material dispute of fact as to the parent-child relationship. While the father claimed no relationship existed, the daughter claimed a relationship was existent but broken. While the father claimed he was excluded from the college selection process, the daughter contended he paid the application fee and is a graduate of the very same college.

Second, the appellate court found no basis for allocating two-thirds of the college expenses to the father without further fact finding. The PSA requires the parties to contribute according to their ability to pay, but a review of updated financial information was not conducted by the trial court. The appellate court found that the trial court failed to review the statutory criteria of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) as well as the Newburgh factors to reach a decision regarding allocation of the college costs.

Finally, the trial court erroneously found there was no change in circumstances with regard to the father’s child support obligation. The trial court ignored the fact that (1) the original child support obligation was based upon 2 children, though the parties’ son had since been emancipated and (2) the daughter’s residence at college required a modification of the child support obligation. While the appellate division noted that child support and contribution to college are two discrete obligations, one cannot be ignored in determining the other when establishing a parent’s appropriate financial obligation.

This decision reminds practitioners and litigants that college contribution cases are fact-sensitive inquires that will more often than not require a plenary hearing in order to be resolved. Further, it serves as a reminder that while child support will be affected by an obligation to contribute to college expenses, the mere fact that a child enters college does not extinguish a traditional child support payment. However, these two distinct obligations remain symbiotically intertwined, and must be looked at together in addressing a parent’s responsibility to contribute to the ongoing support and education of their children.

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Katherine A. Nunziata, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPKatherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at knunziata@foxrothschild.com.

 

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