Growing up, my siblings and I all played sports. My brother and I were basketball players and my sister was, in no uncertain terms, a track star. Playing sports was a lifestyle in our family, and no one took it more seriously than my father himself, a former basketball player and my toughest coach. My dad was not only an extremely skillful basketball player, but he was a great teacher and I valued all the time he spent with me in the driveway teaching me how to perfect my shot. I like to think this is why he was always my most vocal fan at my games.

No matter how packed the stands were for a Friday night game (my high school had almost 4,000 students), I could tune out every cheer, scream and shout, that is, except of course, my dad’s. He had his share of one liners, “advice” for the referees and positive feedback, but when I wasn’t playing up to his standards (which rival that of Coach K or Jim Boeheim), I was always able to find him in the sea of parents, with two fingers on the bridge of his nose shaking his head in disappointment or somehow hear his “instructions” as to what I could be doing better, over all the noise.

A few distinct memories are as follows: once, when I was about 12, in the middle of a game, my dad, then toting along my much younger sister, came down from the stands over to the bench to tell me that I was playing “so badly” he was going to wait in the car–if that did not instill fear in you to play better, nothing would. It was going to be a long car ride if I didn’t turn that around! Another time a referee told him to start drinking decaffeinated coffee before coming to tournaments. But my favorite was when I missed a few foul shots in a game (which was the equivalent, or worse than, being expelled from school). My dad drilled into my head from a young age the importance of foul shots, so after the game, I was not allowed to come inside the house until I made 25 foul shots, in a row. I still remember that cold December evening, standing outside in the dark on the chalk-drawn foul line he made, taking shot after shot in the glow of the overhead garage light. Once you learn how to make foul shots without feeling your hands, it becomes second nature.

In any event, everything my dad did (except maybe his “advice” towards the referees), taught me how to be a better basketball player, a better team player, work harder and, subsequently/somehow, positively shaped me into the person I am today. And while he was tough, I never once felt discouraged or embarrassed; instead he motivated me to work harder. After all, by high school, I was our team’s technical foul shooter.

But all too often, parents cross the line from teaching their children to be better athletes to acting inappropriately, disparagingly, and disruptive not only towards their own children, but towards their children’s team and coaches.

65898085 - rear view little league baseball team sitting on bench

In the unpublished (non-precedential) matter of D.W. v. M.W., the mother of a 7-year old child filed a motion seeking to prohibit her ex-husband, the child’s father, from attending their son’s coach-pitched Little League baseball games due to what she alleged, was “inappropriate public criticizing and disparaging of the coach’s baseball-related decisions and abilities in an embarrassing and demeaning manner”. According to the mother, the father routinely made negative and demeaning comments at the baseball field, that their 11-year old daughter then began repeating, that other parents witnessed this inappropriate conduct, and that the father even took his commentary from the baseball field to FaceBook. The child’s father denied these allegations.

After recognizing the cultural importance of Little League baseball, Judge Jones took judicial notice “that the results of particular Little League games are not nearly as significant as the underlying goal of developing a child’s ongoing personal character in a positive fashion. In this respect, there is a paramount importance in maintaining the surrounding environment at the Little League field as one which promotes respect, integrity, responsibility, discipline and self-restraint. Ironically, however, a great challenge in meeting these goals often comes not from the participating children, but from parents. While fathers and mothers come to games and practices for the alleged purpose of supporting their sons and daughters, there are times when overly critical, judgmental and interfering parents invariably end up acting in an objectively inappropriate manner, which can be highly embarrassing and emotionally detrimental for their own children, and others as well.”The “social phenomenon of out-of-control sports parents is often informally referred to as ‘Little League Parent Syndrome”.

41648699 - summerlin, nevada - june 4: a summerlin little league girls game on june 4, 2015, in summerlin, nevada. two players warm up at a summerlin little league game in summerlin in nevada.

But when and where does the Court intervene in this matter? A parent’s inappropriate and disruptive conduct, not only at the ball field but in any public venue, may be directly contrary to the best interests of their child, and in cases before the family court, a child’s best interests, rights and needs are greater than that of either parent.

In the case at bar, Judge Jones made it clear that he could have set the matter down for a costly and elongated plenary hearing, but decided to undertake what he referenced as the “fresh start” approach. The “fresh start” approach does not make any finding as to the credibility or accuracy of either party’s viewpoints, but requires that both parents submit to the same “(a) parameters of parental conduct at the ball field; and (b)… act at all times in a manner which is consistent with the children’s best interests as well as the true purpose of organized youth sports in the first place.”

The parties were also directed to follow all league rules concerning parental conduct and additionally, adhere to the following parameters not only at the site of the games and practices, but also on social media:

1) A parent may not publicly harass or demean his or [her] child or any other child;

2) A parent may not publicly harass or demean any coach or official. If a parent has a particular issue which he or she wishes to communicate with a coach or official, then absent a legitimate emergency, the parent may address the issue with the coach or official, privately, either by letter or by any other method deemed acceptable by league officials, including but not limited to, if reasonably necessary, an in-person meeting, outside the presence of children, and consistent with any existing league rules, with all such communication conducted in a mature, diplomatic, and respectful manner;

3) A parent may not publicly harass or demean any other or any parent or other spectator in the stands; including but not limited to that parent’s separated divorced, or otherwise estranged spouse, or such person’s guest(s). A child’s sporting event is a wholly inappropriate place for any public domestic disputes of any kind;

4) A parent who attends a child’s youth sporting event or practice has an affirmative obligation to act in a manner which upholds the dignity of the event. In particular, a parent may not act in a manner which is directly contrary to the core purposes of the event itself, such as teaching children concepts of maturity, respect, and discipline, and good sportsmanship. A parent who cannot or will not accept these parameters, and who acts in a manner which publicly undermines these core goals and values, may undermine the integrity of the event and the rights of all participating children and other adults in attendance;

5) A parent is to fully comply with all other rules of conduct required by the league or organization in question.

The purpose of the “fresh start” approach is much like the lessons learned from youth sports; there is always a second chance to do better. “With parenting, the reality is that parents who allegedly commit errors or fumbles in raising children, and who end up in court over such incidents, may positively and constructively learn from the entire experience” and make positive changes going forward that are in the best interests of their children. While the “fresh start” approach is contingent upon both parties making positive changes, if they are willing and able undertake this approach, I believe it can be successfully extended to other parenting issues as well. In the right instances, as practitioners, we should be mindful of this approach when dealing with similar parenting issues.

More and more, when discussing the payment of college education expenses with clients for their children, I am being asked, “What about graduate school?”  The guiding principal behind that question, I suppose, is that, in New Jersey, it is well-settled that absent extenuating circumstances, both parties to a divorce have an obligation to financially provide for their children’s college educations.  By that logic, if a child seeks an advanced degree, don’t both parties have an obligation to financially contribute to those educational costs as well?

The question of whether a graduate degree is the new undergraduate degree is a debatable one, sure.  But in a recent unpublished (not precedential) decision, J.C. v. A.C., the New Jersey Superior Court determined that even though divorced parents have an obligation to contribute to their children’s pursuit of a college degree in ordinary circumstances, this doesn’t mean that there is a continuing obligation to contribute to the child’s pursuit of a graduate degree.

 

The pertinent question here is whether the child is emancipated, i.e., whether the child has the ability to support him or herself.  New Jersey generally deems children to be unemancipated, even if they are over the age of 18, if they are attending college full time.  This is because our courts have established that a child attending college is generally not capable of supporting him or herself yet.  But, as Judge Jones discusses in J.C., the same cannot necessarily be said of a child who has already obtained a college education and has a college degree.  The Court cannot simply look at graduate school as an extension of undergraduate education, because there are clear differences between a college student with only a high school degree, and a graduate student with a college degree:

First, as previously noted, a graduate student has usually and most critically already obtained a bachelor’s degree, evidencing an enhanced ability to start taking independent responsibility for his or her own life.

Second, a graduate student who already has a bachelor’s degree – as compared to an undergraduate student with only a high school diploma – may logically and inherently more marketable [sic] in certain instances, an therefore reasonably expected to utilize the degree and apply for jobs where he or she can earn an independent living, even if such jobs may pay less than certain positions which require a master’s degree or other advanced degrees that the student can obtain on his or her own at a later date. [. . .].

Third, the distinction between an undergraduate student and a graduate student has been implicitly recognized by the Federal government itself.  When an undergraduate student applies for financial aid through FAFSA, the FAFSA application form generally requires applicants to disclose parental income as part of the information necessary to determine eligibility and the amount of financial aid the applicant may receive.  Graduate and professional degree students are generally considered independent students and are not required to supply information regarding parental income on the FAFSA application. [. . .].

Fourth, absent highly unusual circumstances, a graudate student is, from a chronological standpoint, generally older than the undergraduate student, and therefore naturally expected to be more mature and independent in a manner consistent with his or her years and life experience.  With such years are naturally expected to come the ability to be self sufficient, outside the sphere of parental influence. [. . .].

Fifth, from a standpoint of sensibility, one may legitimately question just how far the concept of extending emancipation and child dependency beyond college graduation actually goes. [. . .]. Does a parent have to financially maintain a “child” who is 25 or 30 years old, just because the child chooses to seek further advanced degrees, and the parent happened to have had an unsuccessful marriage and divorced the child’s other parent many years earlier?  Does such a result make practical sense?

The question then, says Judge Jones, must be:  is this college graduate emancipated, or not?  Judge Jones’ analysis above suggests that the Court should, in most circumstances, consider a college grad to be capable of supporting him or herself – even if he or she might want to pursue a higher education degree that would allow him or her to support him/herself, perhaps, on a higher salary – and therefore be emancipated.  The burden of proof, then, should lie with the applicant seeking a parent’s contribution to graduate educational expenses to show that it is “appropriate, necessary, and equitable under the circumstances” to require continued support by way of an order requiring a parent to help pay for grad school.  The pertinent factors in that analysis would be the oft-cited Newburgh v. Arrigo factors:

  1. Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
  2. The effect of the background, values, and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
  3. The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
  4. The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
  5. The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
  6. The financial resources of both parents;
  7. The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
  8. The financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust;
  9. The ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation;
  10. The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
  11. The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and
  12. The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

These, combined with other equitable factors for consideration – most obviously, the inherent differences between a high school student seeking contribution to undergraduate expenses and a college grad seeking contribution to graduate school expenses – have to be considered when determining whether it is fair for a parent to have to contribute to graduate education expenses.

But wait…what about the new statute?

The J.C. v. A.C. case recognizes that, effective February 1, 2017, there will be major changes in the law of emancipation and termination of a parent’s obligation to pay child and other financial support under N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67.  Under that statute – which will apply retroactively as well as prospectively – a parent’s obligation to pay child support will terminate by operation of law when a child reaches the age of 19, unless a court orders an extension of payment which shall not extend beyond the child’s 23rd birthday.  If a child is enrolled full time in college after he or she reaches the age of 19, then child support will not be terminated until that child reaches age 23, by which time the average college student has indeed graduated.

That’s a long-winded way of saying:  If your kid is in college, child support and a parent’s obligation to pay for college will continue until your kid turns 23.  Then, there can be no more child support.

BUT – and this is a big “but” – the amended statute provides that even though “child support” – i.e. payments from one parent to another for the support of the child – terminates, a child over the age of 23 will be able to seek a court order requiring “other forms of financial maintenance” from a parent.  In other words, a child over the age of 23 can still ask the court to require a parent to pay his/her expenses, it just won’t be called “child support.”

I recently moderated a Continuing Legal Education Panel where the panelists and I discussed this impending new statute, and this very issue was raised:  Under the new statute, could a 23 year old (or older!) “child” apply to the Court for another “form of financial maintenance” from a parent in the form of contribution to graduate education expenses?  And could that child be successful?

Judge Jones’ opinion certainly provides guidance on that question and suggests that not every claim by a child seeking a parent’s contribution to graduate school expenses should be granted under the new statute; the test will be whether the child can meet his or her burden of proof to show that an order requiring a parent to contribute to grad school expenses is “appropriate, necessary, and equitable under the circumstances” based upon the Newburgh factors and any other equitable considerations, including most importantly the general distinctions that can be made between a high school student seeking contribution to undergraduate expenses and a college graduate seeking contribution from a parent for grad school expenses.


headshot_diamond_jessicaJessica C. Diamond is an associate in the firm’s Family Law Practice, resident in the Morristown, NJ, office. You can reach Jessica at (973) 994.7517 or jdiamond@foxrothschild.com.