Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

A N.J. Divorce, College Expenses and a Divorced Parents Right To Know

Here in New Jersey, divorced parents may be legally compelled to contribute towards their child’s college tuition and certain related expenses. However, the attorneys at our family law and divorce law firm embrace that the non-custodial parent has a right to receive documentation verifying that their child is in fact continuously enrolled in college on a full time basis as well as the grades and any other pertinent information. If the custodial parent (or child) refuses to disclose this information, our lawyers shall file a motion in the Superior Court of New Jersey to compel the production of any and all documents that would disclose these essential facts. Below we dissect a recent case from a New Jersey Family Court that verifies these rights. Following is a legal analysis of a recent case that was just handed down by a New Jersey Family Court regarding this red-hot issue.

Seton-Hall-University-1024x576

In Van Brunt v. Van Brunt, the Honorable Judge Jones of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Ocean County was tasked with deciding whether a parent obligated to pay child support or contribute towards college costs, has a right to ongoing verification of the child’s collegiate status, and whether the responsibility to provide the non-custodial parent with ongoing proof of college attendance, credits, and grades lie s with the student, the custodial parent, or both. After a thoughtful deliberation, Judge Jones held that a court order that requires a college student to submit proof of attendance, credits, and grades as a requirement for ongoing child support and college expenses does not in fact violate the privacy rights of that student under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and both the student and the custodial parent have a duty to make sure that the supporting parent receives proof of the student’s college attendance, credits, and grades.

In Van Brunt, Michele and Craig Van Brunt divorced on April 10, 2008. They had two children together while married. In their marital settlement agreement, Michele and Craig mutually agreed to share joint legal custody of their kids, and that Michele would serve as the parent of primary residence. This marital settlement agreement also covered child support, college expenses, and emancipation. According the marital settlement agreement, Michele would “consult and confer with Husband” on issues about the children’s education. Craig was required to pay child support to Michele, and contribute towards medical insurance, and college costs. Michele and Craig agreed to confer with each other to establish a mutually beneficial policy regarding the children’s college expenses, and Craig’s child support obligation would continue until the kids became emancipated. The marital settlement agreement’s definition of emancipation stated that if a child went to college he or she would remain unemancipated for the four years of attendance. The marital settlement agreement did not, however, address Craig’s right to access the child’s educational documents.

In 2010 Melissa started attending Stockton College as a full time student. In April of 2010 Craig filed a motion to compel his ex-wife to provide him with their daughter’s college records, and if she failed to do so, then emancipate Melissa. The trial court explained that because Melissa was twenty-one years old, her unemancipated status, and Craig’s obligation to pay child support, rested on her status as a full time college student. As such, Michele was ordered to submit proof that Melissa was indeed enrolled in college full-time, including: a course list with credits, verified by her college; report card copies; and school enrollment verification. The court ordered that if this information was not provided within thirty days, Craig could re-file his motion to emancipate Melissa.

Michele did not give Craig this information, and so he filed another motion for emancipation. In her response to his motion, Michele attached copies of some of the requested documents, but not all. On June 18, 2010, the court denied Craig’s motion for emancipation, explaining that Michele submitted Melissa’s transcripts that showed that she tried to take a full-time course load in 2009, but was not able to complete the credits. The trial court reasoned that Melissa had enrolled in and passed a significant amount of classes, and may have even passed enough to achieve an Associates Degree. Michele was ordered to give Craig, within thirty days, a certified final report card from Ocean County Community College that stated how many credits she earned, proof of graduation and associates degree; and proof of the alleged injury or illness that disturbed her college attendance, otherwise Melissa would be emancipated as of March 17, 2010. Moreover, as an additional condition to remained unemancipated, Melissa would have to enroll in and pass at least twelve credits every semester. Michele would have to give Craig proof of the courses Melissa was enrolled in and how many credits she was taking, within thirty days after each semester started, and a report card after each semester ended.

Michele failed to supply Craig with these documents, so he filed a motion to compel her to abide by the order and provide him with documentation of their daughter’s college attendance, credits, and grades. Michele responded by contending that the delay was her daughter’s fault and that because Melissa was twenty-two, Michele was not able to get the paperwork due to Melissa’s privacy rights. Michele was basically arguing that the responsibility to provide Craig with documentation proving her college status was her daughters, and thus she should not be held responsible.

Judge Jones noted that this was the third time in 2010 alone that Craig had to go to court to get information about Melissa’s college attendance and report cards. He characterized this situation as unacceptable and in violation of Craig’s rights as a father obligated to pay child support and college expenses. The marital settlement agreement provided that Melissa would remain unemancipated if she attended four years of college. Therefore, her full time student status and her college attendance was directly related to her unemancipated status, and to Craig’s obligation to pay child support. If she was not attending college, then she would be emancipated and Craig would no longer have an obligation to pay child support. As such it was vital that Craig have a right to receive continuing proof and documentation relating to her college status.

Generally, as a college student, Melissa had a right to privacy for her college records. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, is a federal law that states students over the age of eighteen have limited rights of privacy when it comes to their college records. Generally, colleges are forbidden from releasing this type of information to third parties, without first getting the students written permission. This law only applies to colleges that receive government money. Furthermore, while this law requires schools to get written authorization from the student to release information, this constraint does not apply to court orders.

Judge Jones held that a parent paying child support or contributing to college expenses has a right to continuous proof of the child’s college status. The supporting parent needs this information to know if the child should remain unemancipated. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not hinder this right. Actually, this law permits schools to release information to comply with a court order. Even though Melissa had a right of privacy to her college records, she could not use this right to block her father from confirming her college status while also claiming she is unemancipated and entitled to child support from him. A parent who is obligated to pay college expenses and child support for a child over the age of eighteen, has a right to confirm that the child is actually enrolled in college full-time. If a child is not willing or able to provide such information, then he or she is not permitted to claim an entitlement to college expenses or child support at the same time.

Melissa had a duty to give her father verification of her educational status. Michele also had a similar duty because she was receiving continuous child support from Craig. Judge Jones held that she could not ignore this duty and also demand child support payments. For more information on this topic, please call my office today.