Here in New Jersey, divorced parents are generally obligated to contribute to the college education expenses for their un-emancipated children. In virtually every marital settlement agreement where there are un-emancipated children (the agreement the parties to a divorce enter into in resolution of all of their financial and/or parenting time issues), there is some sort of agreement as to how college will be paid for. Sometimes, it is very general and simply states that the parties’ respective contributions shall “abide the event,” and sometimes it is detailed and specific as to how much each party will contribute. Virtually always, it should indicate that both parties will take part in the college selection process.
In a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision, Weinman v. Weinman, the trial Court declined to enforce an agreement that called for the parties to each contribute to their children’s college education expenses based on their financial circumstances at the time the children went to college. In this case, the mother of the children had engaged in a years-long campaign of parental alienation, from the time of the divorce (when the children were infants) all the way through high school. While claims of alienation are often disputed and can sometimes be hard to prove, in this situation the alienation was well-documented by not only the Father, but many professionals that had been enlisted by the Court over the years to try to help the family, to no avail. The Court found that, sadly, the Mother’s alienation efforts were a success. The children adamantly rejected any sort of meaningful relationship with their father, excluded him from their lives, ridiculed him and his new wife, and refused to spend time with him. As to college specifically, they chose not to involve him in their college selection decisions and rebuffed his advice and other attempts to be involved in the process. The only knowledge he had about the college search were perfunctory e-mails from the Mother regarding what schools the children were applying to, and requests for payment for college testing and other related expenses.
The trial judge found that the children were “beyond the sphere of influence” of their father and, therefore, emancipated effective on their 18th birthdays, and terminated the Father’s child support obligation as of that date. This, in and of itself, is an interesting issue. Normally, in New Jersey, child support continues for the child while he or she is in college (though it is usually adjusted to account for college costs). Arguably, even if the Court did not require the Father to pay for college, it could have continued child support. The law is well settled that child support is a parent’s obligation regardless of the quality of the relationship. That the judge made the finding that the children were over 18 years old and “beyond the sphere of influence” was critical to determining that they were actually emancipated and no longer entitled to support.
As to college, the judge did not enforce the parties’ agreement on this issue, a decision which the Appellate Division upheld. Referencing the Moss v. Nedas case and the Ricci case that I previously wrote about on this blog, the Court found that circumstances had changed since the entry of the MSA which made it unfair to enforce. Namely, the campaign of alienation and resulting rejection of the Father by the children made it inequitable to require the Father to contribute to the children’s college education expenses. The Court then engaged in an analysis of the Newburgh v. Arrigo factors (I wrote about these on our blog here), the analysis the Court must engage in to determine when there is no prior agreement. One of these factors is “the child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance.”
Given the findings of alienation and the many efforts the Father made to be involved in the college decision (including offering parental advice and being baldly rejected by the child), the Court found that the Newburgh factors did not merit the Father’s contribution to college. While the Mother argued, on appeal, that the trial judge placed too much emphasis on this factor. The Appellate Division disagreed, finding that emphasis on this factor was not an abuse of discretion – a ruling which suggests that this factor may be elevated in importance in such severe cases of parental alienation and rejection by the child.
Jessica C. Diamond is an attorney in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or firstname.lastname@example.org.