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Can a Divorce Impact a Child’s College Choice?

If you are divorced or are considering a divorce in the future and have college-bound children, it is important to understand the implications divorce can have on their education after high school. Learn how the courts determine which parent pays tuition and how that can affect where your child goes to school.

When Divorced Parents Disagree on a College Choice?

If you have a child in high school, your family is probably thinking about their path after graduation. College tuition is obviously a significant financial investment. Whether your child attends school in New Jersey or out-of-state, tuition for a four-year college or university can range anywhere from $15,000 – $75,000 per year.

For most families, cost is one of the determining factors in college choice. But what about divorced parents who do not agree on the best option for their child? Can a parent be required to pay for a pricey, private school if a more affordable state college is available? Can you veto your child’s college choice?

The answers to these questions largely depend on what it says about college tuition in your divorce settlement.

Address the “What Ifs” In Your Divorce Agreement

College is one of those “what ifs” couples cannot predict when they become parents. But it is something you should think about and plan for even if you get divorced while your children are still little.

It is never too early to start thinking about how you will pay for college if your child wants to go. The earlier you decide these issues, the sooner you can start planning and saving for your child’s tuition.

Some states require couples who divorce to specify how they will pay college tuition in their divorce agreement. Even if the law does not state who must pay, divorced parents are expected to come to some agreement about contributions for higher education.

When it comes to your divorce agreement, the more detailed it is, the better. Specify where the money will come from, particularly if you have created a dedicated 529 or other college fund. Do not forget other expenses like room and board, books, laptops, meal plans, and cell phones.

Determine what happens if the child takes a gap year or decides not to attend college at all. What happens to that money? If they do not go to college, when will child support end? These are all details you must discuss with your ex and your respective attorneys.

Even if your state does not require this issue to be resolved in divorce, it makes sense to address it along with custody, child support, and spousal support. Your attorney can explain in detail how all of these issues impact each other, and how your custody arrangement can actually determine how much financial aid your child will receive. More on that below.

What If My Divorce Agreement Does Not Address College Tuition?

If you divorced when your children were little and college seemed so far off in the future, make an appointment with your attorney to discuss your options. If you and your ex cannot come to an agreement about contributions toward tuition, the courts will decide during something called a plenary hearing.

For a plenary hearing, parents are required to submit their tax records, income statements, and a list of their assets. The court reviews these financial documents and listens to testimony from the parents to determine what each will contribute toward college.

Factors That Determine Parental Obligations for College Tuition

In many states, the noncustodial parent may not be required to pay for college. That is because under state laws, child support is only mandatory until the child graduates high school or turns 18.

New Jersey is fairly unique because state law recognizes education as a priority. In 1982, a landmark case, Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, helped establish key principles to determine tuition obligations that family court judges still follow today. Per Newburgh v. Arrigo, when evaluating the claim for contribution toward the costs of college tuition, the courts are to consider all relevant factors including:

  • Both parents’ financial resources.
  • How much the child is seeking for college tuition.
  • The parent’s ability to pay the requested amount.
  • The child’s financial resources including trusts and other assets.
  • The child’s ability to earn income while attending school.
  • The availability of grants, loans, and other financial aid.
  • The child’s relationship with the paying parent.
  • The value of education for the child’s long-term goals.
  • The background, goals, and values of the parent relating to the expectation of the child to attend college.
  • If the parent would have contributed to the costs of higher education if they still lived with the child.

This list includes many of the details family court judges look at when determining if, who, and how much divorced parents will contribute to their child’s higher education costs. It is important to note every decision is made on a case-by-case basis based on the financial circumstances, custody arrangements, and relationship dynamics in a family.

While the child’s dream school is considered, so is each parent’s ability to afford that school. The judge may not require a parent to pay for a college in the higher-end of the tuition range, if the child is accepted to a good public university that is half the price and meets all of their needs. The goal is always to do what is best for the child—and fiscally feasible for the parent.

Custody Arrangements Can Impact Financial Aid

If you have a 50/50 custody arrangement, you should know this plan can actually cost you a significant amount in financial aid monies. Every student seeking state or federal financial aid must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.)

FAFSA requires income statements for the parent with primary custody. If parents share custody 50/50, then income for the highest-earning parent must be submitted, which may result in less financial aid. Be sure to review FAFSA guidelines thoroughly and discuss your options with a financial advisor before your child applies for school to maximize state and federal aid.

Consider the Implications of Remarrying on Possible Financial Aid

While it is wonderful when a divorced parent finds love again, if you are a practical person, you should understand how marrying can impact financial aid for college. When a custodial parent remarries, their new spouse’s income is considered during the application process.

Many schools require the non-custodial parent’s financial information in addition to the financial information of the custodial parent. If both spouses remarry, it is possible that the income and assets of all four adults may be applicable toward college tuition. Holding off on getting married for a few years may just make good financial sense for you and your child.

New Jersey courts tend to view higher education as a necessity. More and more, the courts are requiring parents to pay for college for their children. If you are a parent in New Jersey, it is best to meet with a skilled family law attorney and a financial advisor to learn the implications of divorce, custody, and support on college tuition.

Marlton Family Law Lawyer at Goldstein & Mignogna, P.A., Helps Divorced Parents Navigate Their Childrens’ College Years

 Tuition can be a bone of contention between exes who do not agree on the right college for their child or who should pay for it. Our dedicated Marlton family law lawyers at Goldstein & Mignogna, P.A., are here to help you resolve these issues as effectively as possible so you can step back and enjoy this exciting chapter in your child’s life. Call 856-890-9400 or contact the firm online to discuss your legal matter with a member of our team. Based in Marlton, New Jersey, we assist clients across South Jersey including Burlington County, Camden County, and Gloucester County.

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