Although most attorneys and judges consider the completion of college or other post-high school educational program to constitute an emancipation of the child and a termination of child support obligations, there have been a handful of cases where parents have been obligated to contribute toward graduate school expenses. In the matter of Ross v. Ross, a 1979 Family Court decision, the Court required a father to continue paying support until the parties’ daughter completed Law School. The Ross Court’s decision was based on a finding that the daughter had long expressed her interest in becoming a lawyer. Although the Ross case was decided more than 30 years ago, since it was a lower Court decision, the ruling has not had substantial precedential value and it has been very rare that parties have been compelled to contribute towards post-graduate support.
However, on February 20, 2014, an Appellate Court decision was rendered in the matter of Rossi v. Livingston. In this matter, the parties negotiated a provision in their Property Settlement Agreement which acknowledged that the parties would be equally responsible for the child’s law school education if she maintained at least a “C” average. After the parties’ divorce, there was little or no relationship between the father and the daughter. After a three year hiatus following the daughter’s college graduation, she applied to various law schools and was accepted to Cornell University Law School at an annual expense of $75,000.00. When the father argued that the lack of any relationship with the daughter and the three year hiatus should result in negating the Property Settlement Agreement provision, the Family Court and the Appellate Division disagreed. In essence, the Courts enforced the Property Settlement Agreement provision and disregarded the longer than anticipated hiatus and the lack of relationship between father and daughter. Significantly, the agreed upon obligation to equally divide law school expenses was not conditioned upon either of these matters.
The conclusions from New Jersey Case Law are that in the vast majority of cases, child support obligations will terminate upon the child’s attainment of the age of 18 and graduation from high school, unless the child attends college or another post-high school educational program on a full-time basis. If the child attends college on a full-time basis, it is likely that the parents will have continuing support obligations and will also be required to share in college expenses, based upon their financial circumstances and after considering the availability of scholarships, grants and loans. In cases where both parents agree to contribute toward post-graduate expenses, the agreement must be carefully worded to consider potential changes in circumstances, including changes in income, changes in the relationship between parent and child and whether the child must commence the post-graduate program within a designated time period following college graduation.
Barry Chatzinoff, Esquire has been representing South Jersey residents in Matrimonial and Family Law matters for more than 30 years.