When parties get divorced and there are children in high school or younger, they often reserve on what their financial contributions towards the children’s post-secondary educational expenses will look like. We often include language in settlement agreements that sets forth a date when the parties agree to exchange their respective financial documents and decide their pro rata share of post-secondary educational expenses. In the event the parties are unable or unwilling to agree after that exchange occurs, then the issue requires judicial intervention.

This is what occurred in Van Sciver v. Betten, A-3874-19. The parties were married in December 1999. They had three (3) children, one of which was adopted and emancipated at the time of the relevant litigation. The other two (2) children were their twenty (20) year old son and nineteen (19) year old daughter. A Judgment of Divorce was entered on July 26, 2016, which incorporated the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) and an addendum executed on the date of their divorce. The MSA set forth Defendant’s child support obligation, and also required the parties to mutually exchange financial documents to determine their share of college expenses by the end of the child’s junior year of high school. In fact, the MSA explicitly included a provision regarding Defendant’s receipt of a Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which was transferred for the children’s benefit and apparently covered two (2) full years of college for each child. It was also specifically contemplated that “each party’s contribution will be based upon the parties’ then-existing financial circumstances at the time of the child’s enrollment in college or other post-secondary education.” The children had an affirmative obligation to explore all available grants, scholarships, loans and other financial aid prior to the parents’ contributions.

The parties predetermined that child support would be renegotiated upon each child leaving for college and that the ultimate child support award would take into consideration the parents’ contributions towards college. At the time of the signing of the MSA, Defendant’s child support obligation was $1,000 per month while both children were not in college, which was based upon Plaintiff’s income of $110,000 gross per year and Defendant’s income of $97,500 gross per year. A September 2018 Consent Order reduced Defendant’s child support obligation to $423 per week based upon Plaintiff’s income of $109,980 gross per year and Defendant’s income of $142,116 gross per year. Plaintiff was responsible for 41% of all non-Guidelines expenses, while Defendant was responsible for the remaining 59%.

The parties’ son was then accepted to Syracuse University. Defendant was included in the selection process, never objected to Syracuse University and, in fact, provided an e-mail to Plaintiff indicating he was “thrilled.” A motion was filed by Plaintiff to enforce the terms of the MSA and set the parties’ respective shares of their son’s college costs. A cross motion was filed by Defendant seeking, inter alia, to discharge his college contribution. The parties were ordered to comply with the MSA regarding college contributions.

Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion seeking, inter alia, Defendant’s 59% contribution towards all fees associated with Syracuse University. Defendant cross-moved to terminate child support and for his Yellow Ribbon military benefits to be credited against his college contributions. The motion judge ordered Defendant to pay a one-time fee required to save a living arrangement for the son and scheduled a full hearing thereafter on the issue of the parties’ respective shares towards their son’s tuition and other college expenses.

Thereafter, Defendant filed an additional motion seeking the same relief. The motion judge ordered supplemental documents to be provided to the Court. At oral argument, Defendant urged (although he did not formally request) the court to limit his obligation as he felt like he “was not being given a voice in making college related purchases.” Additionally, Plaintiff claimed that there were missing military benefits as discussed in the MSA. Namely, instead of two (2) full years remaining for the children, there was only eighteen (18) months. Accordingly, Plaintiff accused Defendant of dissipating funds that were specifically earmarked for the children’s college education and requested that he be personally liable for the deficit.

Importantly, there was no plenary hearing. Instead, the Judge issued an Order that reduced Defendant’s child support obligation at $139 per week for the son and $280 per week for the daughter. The motion judge also ordered that the parents’ college contributions be capped at $10,000, set Plaintiff’s share of expenses at 49% and Defendant’s at 51%, and required that the children be responsible for $7,000 of college expenses not covered by the benefits, scholarships, grants and other financial aid. The motion judge found “no foul play” by Defendant with respect to the military benefits “missing.”

Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration. The motion judge prepared new child support guidelines that set forth Defendant’s child support obligation at $280 per week, remodified their pro rata share of expenses, and denied Plaintiff’s request to lift the $10,000 limitation.

In rationalizing the Court’s decision, the motion judge stated that the parents “did not have an obligation to fund the cost of a school just because it offers an appropriate education for the respective child…the obligation is to fund an appropriate college education, not any given school…[the MSA] was not an agreement that the obligation was unlimited to fund college.” The motion court couched its decision in the Newburgh v. Arrigo factors, although there was no detailed analysis relative thereto.

Child support was set at $343 per week for the parties’ daughter. However, the guidelines addended thereto did not make use of any 2019 income figures provided to the Court by both parties and did not credit Defendant for the military benefits that the daughter received.

Plaintiff appealed the aforementioned Orders. On appeal, the Appellate Division noted that the record was barren of any detailed analyses of the parties’ financial circumstances including their incomes, living expenses or other liabilities. While the Judge mentioned Newburgh, supra, the Appellate Division noted that he did so in passing only. Essentially, there was no record to glean, in any meaningful way, how the $10,000 cap was constructed and why.

Since the record was without any detail, the Appellate Division highlighted that the motion judge was without the support of the MSA to, sua sponte, shift the burden of the costs (above the $10,000 cap) to the parties’ children. The denial of Plaintiff’s reconsideration and the child support awards were reversed and remanded for more detailed and robust analyses as required by the applicable statutes and caselaw when it comes to contributions toward children’s college expenses.

Trial courts are heavily backlogged with motion practice, in part due to the effects of COVID-19 and the accompanying shutdowns. However, the Appellate Division made clear to the motion judge that arbitrarily imposing caps on college contribution, without the requisite detailed analyses, is a reversible abuse of discretion. The main takeaway may be largely procedural for the lower courts’ guidance. Notwithstanding that procedural takeaway, it is important to remember the impact of specific language within Marital Settlement Agreements—especially when determining contributions towards college. As the Courts stated in Karl’s Sales & Service v. Gimbel Brothers, 249 N.J. Super. 488, 493 (App. Div. 1991) and Friedman v. Tappan Development Corp., 22 N.J. 523, 531 (1956): you cannot make for the parties a better contract than the parties made for themselves; it is the intent, expressed or apparent in the writing, that controls.