The process of applying to, visiting, and, eventually, choosing a college is an arduous and stressful process on both the enrolling student and the parents. While the decision as to which college to enroll in is of utmost importance, underlying any decision is the reality of the financial consequences of choosing a college. For married couples, this decision can be made jointly, along with the child, without any additional layers of stress. For parents who are divorced (or were never married), the decision involves additional planning and potential pitfalls.
While not every state in the United States believes that there is a requirement for unmarried parents to contribute towards the college education of their children (or to continue paying child support for a child upon graduation of high school), New Jersey places this financial burden on unmarried parents, even though such a burden is not necessarily placed on married parents, whom are free to make the decision of whether to contribute, and how much to contribute, to the child’s college expenses outside of the confines of the legislature’s and judiciary’s determinations on the matter. As such, it is imperative that unmarried parents of children understand the reality of obligations towards college expenses prior to starting the process of considering, and eventually choosing, a college, as failure to do so may severely hinder future attempts to ensure contribution from the other parent.
Obviously, if the unmarried parents, along with the child, can amicably resolve the issue as to how the child will choose a college and how the college expenses will be paid, without the intervention of attorneys and/or the court, this would be ideal, as it would be one more way to ensure that the child is not caught between fighting parents and will allow all parties to focus solely on the most important aspects of a child’s senior year in high school, the joy of graduation, and the accomplishment of attending college. Of course, it would be best to have the agreement put in writing, so that there is no doubt as to what was agreed in case one party attempts to renege on the agreement at a later date.
If working out these issues amicably is not possible, or if there is a general disconnect and lack of communication between the parents and/or the child and the non-custodial parent, it is imperative that the custodial parent takes affirmative steps to ensure that their request for contribution towards college expenses is not later denied by a court.
When a court considers whether a party is required to contribute to the college expenses of their child, and to what extent, the inquiry is truly a two-step process. First, the decision is made as to whether a contribution is required, and then the court will consider the amount of the contribution. While it will obviously be important to ultimately determine the amount of the contribution, one cannot really plan for, nor do they need to plan for, this calculus being performed. However, in order to ensure that the court requires the other party to contribute, a custodial parent can plan ahead of time for a potential court battle and, in fact, should plan ahead of time because the requirements to ensure contribution can only be met by taking the necessary action during the process, not afterwards.
All told, the Court will consider twelve (12) factors when a parent seeks contribution towards college expenses. While many of the factors are beyond a parents control, the most likely way to torpedo ones chances of obtaining contribution is to refrain from keeping the noncustodial parent involved in the decision making process.
Keeping the noncustodial parent involves requires (a) keeping open lines of communication so that the noncustodial parent is aware of what schools are being considered, what schools are being applied to, and the costs of each and (b) giving the noncustodial parent the opportunity to provide input into the ultimate decision making process. As simple as it sounds, weekly emails providing a status update, ending with a request for thoughts or concerns, will prove extremely useful in any future court matters.
So while it is important to enjoy the process of choosing a college for your child, if you are a non-married parent, it is important to cover all of your bases to ensure that you are prepared to deal with any potential problem when it comes time to get the noncustodial parent to contribute towards the costs of college.