All parents have a legal responsibility to meet the financial needs of their children. But what does that entail, and when does it end? It can be difficult to find the line between the “wants” and “needs” of a child. Parents often disagree on whether paying college tuition is a true parental responsibility.

Married parents make that decision together in the privacy of their own home. For divorcing parents, it’s a different story.

Is College Tuition Included in Child Support Payments?

In New Jersey, child support is usually calculated using the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines. The formula does not include the cost of college tuition. This does not excuse parents from paying for college, it simply means the issue is negotiated separately from the child support arrangement.

College tuition is not considered a need equivalent to food or shelter, but New Jersey family courts do generally expect parents to contribute toward a child’s college education. In fact, New Jersey has taken some of the farthest measures in the nation to establish higher education as a necessity.

Case law is constantly evolving on this issue, and outcomes vary widely on a case-by-case basis. To avoid rolling the dice in court, your final judgement of divorce should include a plan for college funding.

An agreement can be negotiated outside of court using a mediation, arbitration, or collaborative approach. This gives both parents flexibility and privacy to create a plan for their unique situation. Settling these issues outside of court will save time, money, and emotional stress.

If both parties cannot agree to a tuition arrangement, the court will schedule a plenary hearing. To establish the financial ability of each parent, both parties will undergo the discovery process. They will submit a Case Information Statement (CIS) listing all assets and debts, along with recent paystubs, W-2s, tax returns, and all other relevant evidence to the court.

A judge will determine who pays what college costs based on a number of factors, including a set of 12 criteria established in the landmark Newburgh v. Arrigo case:

  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
  12. The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child

What is the Newburgh v. Arrigo Case?

The Newburgh v. Arrigo case (88 N.J. 529; 1982) is the foundation of child support and college tuition case law in New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that divorced parents have a legal responsibility to pay for a child’s college education to the best of their financial ability (using the 12 criteria outlined above), even though married parents are not held to the same standard.

According to the ruling:

“In general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students. In appropriate circumstances, parental responsibility includes the duty to assure children of a college and even of a postgraduate education such as law school.”

Since the Newburgh v. Arrigo decision, several cases have influenced child support and tuition case law in New Jersey’s family court system. For that reason, court rulings continue to vary widely on a case-by-case basis. You should always seek legal counsel before making any financial commitments to your ex-spouse.

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