Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.

Back in March, many news organizations reported that New Jersey Judge Peter Bogaard of Morris County Superior Court’s Family Division said “no” to Rachel Canning’s request that her parents contribute towards her education expenses. Ms. Canning’s allegation was that her parents forced her to leave the house and that she was still entitled to support from her parents. The judge essentially agreed that she had actually left the home on her own and was therefore entitled to nothing.

The story made news because it sounded like a spoiled kid, living an entitled life, wanted to play by her own set of rules. At least that was the impression that the news organizations wanted to convey. But I want to remind our readers that the claim is not as silly as it sounds. Forget Ms. Canning’s case for a moment. The basic law in New Jersey is that parents have the obligation to support their unemancipated children. If a high school student is thrown out of the house, the parents would still have the financial obligation to support the child. And children do not automatically get emancipated at the age of 18. Someone needs to make an application for emancipation, and the court will usually deny that application if the child is attending school full-time.

Generally, parents will have the obligation to share in the costs of college education. But what about divorced parents where the child refuses to speak with one of the parents? Once a child turns 18, a parent cannot physically force the child to go visit with the other parent (and many will agree that this is also true for younger children). Is it fair to the father to make him pay for college when his son literally refuses to see his father or even speak to him?

This was the question in the recently published opinion of Black v. Black. In that case, the parents had agreed that each would contribute towards college expenses. They also agreed that one of the children would go to counseling with his father in order to work out their relationship issues. However, the child refused to go. Years go by and he is accepted to Rutgers, and he completes his freshman year. He is then accepted to the University of Miami and decides to transfer. That school is substantially more expensive than Rutgers. The mother then files an application for an order forcing the father to reimburse her for expenses paid to Rutgers and to contribute towards the contemplated expenses for University of Miami.

The judge agreed that it would be unfair for the father to pay when the son refuses to even go to counseling. The judge pointed out that there was no real reason to keep them apart at this time (the results would have likely been different if the father was abusive, for example). However, the judge did order college expense contributions IF the son did attend a certain number of sessions per year. Importantly, the judge pointed out that the father had not been included in the decision to transfer to Miami. This factors into the equation due to the fact that cheaper alternatives (i.e. Rutgers) were available, which could have met the student’s need. At the end of the day, the father was directed to pay a compromised sum towards the education, subject to the counseling requirement.

This is just a short example of what may factor into the equation during disputes about college expenses. Ideally, parents can work out these issues on their own. However, judges must get involved when there is no agreement. And the situation becomes even more complicated when the college student chooses not to have a relationship with one of the parents. In any case, there is a whole analysis that the court would have to go through before ordering college contributions, which depends on several factors. Those factors will be discussed within a later posting, so please check back with us.