When Can Parents be Forced to Pay the Cost of College Tuition?
By Strich Law Firm, Jul 28 2017 04:27PM
A recent case in New Jersey, Ricci v. Ricci, raised a number of questions about the duty of divorced parents in supporting their child’s education. The parents of the child, Caitlyn, had been divorced since she was 4 years old. She lived with her parents throughout high school and enrolled part-time in a community college after graduation. However, upon having issues with her parents, she left her mother’s home at the age of 19 to live with her grandmother. Her parents agreed that she was emancipated and sought to end their child support responsibilities.
Caitlyn legally objected to these efforts and compelled her parents to pay for the cost of her community college education. Though a judge initially approved her intervention and required her parents to pay, Caitlyn then committed to attending a four-year out of state university and sought to make her parents to pay for the cost of this tuition as well. The issue became whether Caitlyn’s parents could be held responsible for paying these costs.
The first consideration in Ricci v. Ricci is whether Caitlyn was legally emancipated upon moving out of her mother’s house. Generally, child support automatically terminates when the child turns 19. However, children can be emancipated before this age upon request by the parents. A child can also request for their support to be extended past the age of 19 if they are enrolled in a higher education program.
If Caitlyn was found to be unemancipated, the second issue was then whether her parents could be held responsible for the cost of her education. The court takes two factors into account in determining whether parents should be held responsible. First, they consider whether it is equitable for the parents to pay the costs. Second, they consider whether the parents have the means to contribute financially.
The court examined the details within this case closely and determined that the facts surrounding Caitlyn’s potential status of emancipation were too contradictory, and remanded the case (sent the case back to the trial judge for a hearing on the facts). If the trial court decides that Caitlyn was unemancipated, it will then consider whether the parents have an obligation to pay. This complex case establishes the principle that parents must be involved with their child’s education decisions to a certain extent in order to be held responsible for their costs and that a child must be unemancipated before parents have an obligation for advanced/technical education.
Comments: New Jersey is one of only a few states that holds parents responsible for advanced/technical education, potentially up through graduate school. The responsibility is, however, limited by whether the child meets emancipation criteria, whether the child and parent/parents are estranged, and if so, whose fault it is, the involvement in the choice of college, the ability to pay for college or technical school related cost, the parents’ education, the child’s ability and other factors (see Newburgh v Newburgh). Here, the Court makes it clear that the emancipation or lack thereof of the child must be determined before there is any obligation or the degree of obligation by the parents for advanced education.
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