Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

“A Parent Cannot Be Viewed As A Wallet;” Divorce, College Expenses and N.J. Law

Over my lengthy career as a divorce attorney with my law firm here in my hometown of East Brunswick, New Jersey, I have had many clients state to me, “my parents made me pay my own way for my college education and today I am a better person for it.” I then have a cumbersome conversation that if they had remained married that they then would have no legal obligation to pay. However, once divorced, it was highly likely that they would have to pay toward their child’s college tuition and costs. My client could only shake their heads in disbelief of this aspect of New Jersey divorce law.

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Since 2014, I have been closely following a case in which a Judge of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey ordered that divorced parents must pay for their daughter’s college education. This made international news as New Jersey law forced divorced parents to pay for college while an intact family is not legally compelled to do so.

In 2014 Caitlyn Ricci sued her parents to compel their payment of her college education of approximately $16,000 for an out-of-state private school (Temple University). At that time, the court essentially ruled that a child could choose a college without consultation of their parents yet her parents still have to pay the college expenses.  This also occurred even though Caitlyn had not only moved out of her parent’s home but she had not even spoken to her parents in nearly two years. The decision implied that this would be the case regardless of Caitlyn’s age. The Judge relied on the paramount New Jersey Supreme Court case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, that established that support for unemancipated children will most likely include contributing towards the cost of attending college even if the child has reached the age of maturity.  Here, please find a blog that I wrote at that time.

In February 2017, the Ricci v. Ricci case was heard on appeal. The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed the court’s role in establishing a parental obligation to contribute towards a child’s college tuition when that child has already left the parental home. In doing so, the appellate panel held that for a parent to be obligated to pay a child’s college cost, he or she must be involved in the college decision-making process and cannot simply be viewed as an “open wallet” for the child. After the issue of emancipation is decided, then the Family Part must conduct a two-part analysis. First, the court must determine if there are any equitable or other considerations that would go against ordering the parents to pay college costs. Then the court must determine if the parents are actually financially able to contribute towards the college costs.

In Ricci v. Ricci, mother Maura McGarvey appealed from several orders of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Camden County, that required her and her ex-husband, Michael Ricci, to contribute towards their now twenty-three year old daughter, Caitlyn Ricci’s college tuition. Both the parents agree that their daughter was emancipated when she chose to leave Maura’s home to live with her grandparents when she was nineteen years old, and filed a consent order to terminate child support, which was memorialized on March 30, 2013.

Then Caitlyn sought to vacate the emancipation order, and obligate her parents to contribute towards her college education. While Caitlyn claimed that she had to move out because there were “substantial personal problem,” and she “did not fit in well with her [Maura’s] new family, and “had substantial problems with [her] father’s new family,” the parents had a different view of the parent-child relationship. They both stated that they loved Caitlyn and wanted to address the issues as a family, but opposed her motion based on her choices and conduct. They detailed numerous difficulties that were caused by their daughter’s disobedience and dangerous decisions that included engaging in underage drinking and sexual activity, smoking marijuana while driving, taking part in explicit sexual conversations on the internet, and trying to hurt herself. The parents even paid for Caitlyn to attend the Disney College program in Florida as a way to test her readiness to live on her own. However, Caitlyn was expelled in the first month for underage drinking and hosting a party in her dorm. When Maura tried to help her daughter, Caitlyn expressed her dislike of the house rules and household chores, and “willingly, knowingly, and voluntarily left and went out on her own.” Michael further stated that Caitlyn refused to answer either parent’s calls or texts before filing her motion, and had not spoken to them for six months. Still in an order dated October 11, 2013, a Family Part judge ordered Maura and Michael to pay the costs for tuition at Gloucester County Community College, which was less than $ 2,000 at that time.

Before completing her associate’s degree however, Caitlyn transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, without consulting her parents. She then filed a motion to have her parents pay the annual out of state tuition for Temple University, which was significantly more than the tuition at the community college. On October 31, 2014, a newly assigned judge enforced the previous October 11 order, and required both parents to pay for all the university’s tuition, fees, and the costs of books, without the benefit of a plenary hearing or even review of financial documentation. The parents then filed a motion for reconsideration on December 6, 2014, but the judge refused to reconsider the obligation to pay the university tuition enumerated in the October 31, 2014 order.

The parents then appealed from the October 11, 2013, October 31, 2014, and the December 6, 2014 orders. In response Caitlyn filed a cross-appeal in which she argued that she should have also received attorney’s fees. The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the portion of the October 11, 2013 order that found that Caitlyn was unemancipated and that the parents must contribute towards her college expenses, because it was factually unsupported and remanded that matter back to the Family Part for a plenary hearing. After that Part must conduct a two-part analysis. First, the court must determine if there are any equitable or other considerations that would go against ordering the parents to pay college costs. The appellate panel made special note that parent cannot simply be considered a wallet for the child. Then the court must determine if the parents are actually financially able to contributing towards the college costs.

One of the fundamental principles of American society is that parents are expected to support their children until they are emancipated. Furthermore, the best interests of a child is the most substantial consideration in all family court issues, and the parental duty to support child is an integral part of the best interests of a child.

Emancipation happens when the fundamental relationship between the parent and child ends, and terminates the burden of support. According to Newburgh, a determination of whether a child is emancipated depends on a fact-specific inquiry. The paramount question is whether the child has moved outside the sphere of responsibility and influence exercised by a parent, and acquires an independent status of his or her own. Moreover, the determination involves an evaluation of the child’s, interests, needs, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and financial ability.

A prima facie proof of emancipation is established by the parent when the child turns eighteen. Then the child or party seeking the continuance of the support obligation has the burden of proof to rebut the statutory presumption of emancipation. Even so, in specific circumstances a parent may still and a duty to support their child after he or she turns eighteen. Under the appropriate circumstances, parenthood comes with the duty to ensure a necessary education for the child, and college costs are considered a form of support for unemancipated children.

Before deciding whether a parent is required to support a child who is over eighteen, the court must conclude whether the child is unemancipated or not. If the child is not emancipated then the next question is whether the child has an aptitude for college. Newburgh does not require a parent to support and defer emancipation of a child that is not able to adequately perform in his or her academic program. Even if the child can perform adequately, the court must also consider if the parents are able to afford the costs of college, among other equitable factors. All of the Newburgh factors must be carefully considered. Such an analysis cannot be applied without a presentation of all the evidence, and examination of the litigants, so that the Family Part has the chance to observe the witnesses. It is the responsibility of the Family Part to conduct a fact-specific review of the Newburgh factors, which usually requires a plenary hearing, especially when there is a genuine dispute of fact that must be resolved.

The New Jersey Appellate Division found that the October 11, 2013 order did not contain any factual findings to support the legal conclusion that Caitlyn was not emancipated, and could not find any reason why the trial judge vacated the previous emancipation order. The dependent nature of a child to his or her parent is representative of emancipation, which cannot be shown merely by a child’s claimed need for support. The law demands that an analysis of the parent-child relationship must be done. A child’s right to receive support is greatly dependent on the child’s acceptance of the parent’s authority, and the parent’s deliberate exercise of influence and guidance. Moreover, a finding of emancipation signifies that a child is independent from a parent’s influence.

The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the portion of the October 11, 2013 order that found that Caitlyn was unemancipated and that the parents must contribute towards her college expenses, because it was factually unsupported and remanded that matter back to the Family Part for a plenary hearing. After the issue of emancipation is decided, then the Family Part must conduct a two-part analysis. First, the court must determine if there are any equitable or other considerations that would go against ordering the parents to pay college costs. The appellate panel made special note that parent cannot simply be considered a wallet for the child. Then the court must determine if the parents are actually financially able to contributing towards the college costs.

Our law firm is available to you or a loved one if divorce and payment of college tuition of the children of the marriage is in question.