Like most attorneys, no matter how many times I get this question (and frankly most other questions in family law), the answer is, it depends. However, in this circumstance, there is case law to suggest that a trial court can, and often should, re-review requests for college costs sought by a parent so long as there is a good faith reason to bring the claim based on increased financial ability of one of the parties.
According to New Jersey Statute 9:2-4, parents are “equally charged with the children’s care, nurture, education and welfare.” This obligation usually terminates upon the emancipation of the child. Emancipation is generally the conclusion of the dependent relationship between a parent and child. Until this relationship is over, a parent is legally obligated to provide support for his or her child. An emancipation can occur in several circumstances as outlined in a divorce agreement or under New Jersey law including, but not limited to, when the child marries, enlistment in military service, by court order, or by reaching the appropriate age.
Ever since the Rachel Channing case, in which a child sued her parent’s for private school tuition and college, my partner and I are often asked by our divorce clients why they are legally compelled to pay for college after a divorce, whereas they would not be if they remained married. While it seems unfair, Courts have found that the privilege of parenthood brings with it the duty to provide your child with a necessary education, and what constitutes a necessary education continues to change. One of the most typically cited cases regarding college contribution is Newburgh v. Arrigo, where the Supreme Court noted that while a college education might have been only for the elite in the past, today higher education is available for practically everyone. More importantly, the Supreme Court found that in general, parents should contribute to the higher education of their children if they are financially capable to do so.
However, the determination of “if you are financially capable to do so” is not one that is determined by the individual, but one evaluated by the Court. And the Court’s opinion on your ability to pay or your spouse’s ability to contribute may be very different from your opinion.
Lately, we have had some clients be under the misapprehension that because they asked for reimbursement in the past, and were denied, they were precluded from asking again in the future. While this question is almost always very fact specific, it is important to know that your case should always be evaluated by an experienced family law attorney, even if the Judge has already considered and denied your request, because there is a chance a second application can have merit.
In the case of Weitzman v. Weitzman, the trial court was tasked with considering whether there should be a modification of support obligations under certain circumstances, such as considering college expenses. Mom appealed from an order denying her motion to have her ex-husband reimburse her for his proportionate share of college expenses for their two children which Mom solely paid. Mom also appealed the Judge’s denial of her request for reimbursement of medical and dental insurance expenses because there was a denial of somewhat similar relief entered four years prior.
The background was that Mom and Dad were divorced on April 10, 1973, and Dad was to pay $25 a week for each of his two children “until emancipation,” to provide medical and dental insurance. Mom was to give Dad advance notice of expenses, and to allow him to pick the physician or dentist examining the children.
Both Mom and Dad experienced financial struggles after the divorce. Mom needed to accept public assistance for some time and Dad was unable to keep consistent employment. In the fall of ‘82, Mom sought a court order to have Dad pay his proportionate share of college expenses for the oldest child who studied at Trenton State College. In December ’82, the court ordered discovery and the case dragged on until December ’85 when both Mom and Dad filed motions. Mom requested college expenses for their daughter and Dad requested that child support be suspended.
The outcome of these motions is somewhat unclear since the trial court did not hold oral argument and did not have an evidentiary hearing. They noted that the only evidence they had to consider was an ambiguous order. The order was drafted by Mom’s attorney and denied Dad’s request to suspend child support, as well as denying Mom’s request that Dad must pay his proportionate share of college expenses. However, there were also numerous provisions crossed out by the court. Mom’s attorney said that she did not appeal this decision because Dad moved out of state and did not have the means to contribute.
Mom remarried and paid for both children’s college herself. The older daughter eventually graduated from Trenton State College and Mom paid a total of $20,585 for her education. The younger daughter started at William Paterson College, failing to complete her degree, but accrued $3,556 in college expenses.
Three months after the older daughter’s graduation, Mom filed an application seeking Dad to make good on his proportionate share of the college expenses, as well as other financial relief (Mom had to get the girls insurance and for reimbursement of past due medical and dental expenses and arrears). Mom argued that since Dad’s mother had recently passed, he was left with the bulk of her estate which was estimated to be several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mom and Dad were able to agree on the amount of arrears (back support) owed and to be paid, but the trial court denied the rest of Mom’s requests, including the request for college costs, relying upon the prior order denying Mom’s request for Dad to contribute to college.
On appeal before the New Jersey Appellate Division, the Appellate Court found that the trial court was wrong to find that the previous order denying college costs entered four years prior had any effect upon Mom’s second request. They found no proof that the order stripped the court of any authority to rehear the matter because no oral argument was held, and no evidentiary hearing was conducted. Additionally, there was no statement of reasons provided to support the order. They noted specifically that while the Judge did cross out the portion of the order requiring Dad to pay his proportionate share of college expenses, that alone did not mean the issue was resolved for all time.
Additionally, the mere fact that Mom failed to appeal the prior order, or seek clarification from the trial court did not preclude her filing the motion. They noted that because Dad moved out of state, it would have been unreasonable to require Mom to file a costly appeal. Also, while it would have been wise for Mom to seek clarification from the court at the time of the order, her actions, or lack thereof, did not amount to a voluntary waiver of her refiling right.
Finally, the Appellate Division found that the trial court’s decision was not consistent with the broad equitable powers of trial judges to review and modify alimony and support orders at any time. This right is enumerated in New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23, which provides that “orders . . . may be revised and altered by the court from time to time as circumstances may require.” In paramount case of Lepis v. Lepis, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that because of this authority, trial courts may review and modify alimony and support orders upon a showing of “changed circumstances.” Then, the court will consider both the finances of both parents, and the best interests of the children and determine a solution that is equitable to both parties.
A “supporting spouse’s” support obligation is primarily determined by the quality of life during marriage, and the continued maintenance of the standard of living to which the dependent spouse and children had become accustomed. As a general principle, a modification to the same obligation may be warranted in certain changed circumstances. A few examples of valid changed circumstances include: an increase in living cost; increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income; illness or disability; the dependent spouse living with another partner; or employment by the dependent spouse. Courts have consistently rejected requests for modification for temporary changes in circumstances, or expected changes that have not occurred. An increase in children’s needs due to maturing has also been held to justify an increase in support so long as the supporting parent is financially able.
The Appellate Division made clear that this case does not mean that someone can come back to the Court over and over again seeking the same relief repeatedly however. “Changed circumstances” would only be considered if made in good faith, and should not be used repeatedly for the same request.
In Weitzman, the Appellate Division found that Mom’s second motion presented genuine issues that needed to be addressed by the trial court, and so they remanded the case back to the trial division for a hearing to consider all of the relevant equitable factors to decide college contribution obligation of the parties.
One other side note, the Appellate Court also noted that they do not intend this case to suggest that individuals can try to seek retroactive changes to support based solely on increased financial ability. Instead, they noted “equity and justice” strongly supported Mom’s right to reimbursement for the amounts she paid towards the children’s college expenses specifically in light of Dad’s ability to pay at the time of the second request.
What does this mean for you? It means that you should always consult with an attorney who focuses in family law that can evaluate the merit of your college costs request, whether you attempted to get the costs previously or not.