Bridge v. Maier - College Contribution... Just because you contributed 37% for one child, doesn't mean you have to contribute 37% for your second child...

Mr. Bridge (“Husband”) and Ms. Maier (“Wife”) were married and had two children, who were born in 1988 and 1990. A final judgment of divorce dissolved the marriage on March 28, 1995. At some later point in time, the parties agreed to contribute to the older child’s college expenses, with Husband paying 37% and 63% by Wife.

In 2007, the parties also agreed to emancipate their older child, who was then 19 years old. Other orders were entered fixing child support for the younger child, who was in the process of matriculating in college. In 2010, the older child decided to re-enter college and Wife requested the trial judge to unemancipated the older child and calculate the appropriate amount of contribution from the Husband.

The Family Part Judge granted Wife’s motion and declared the older daughter unemancipated. The Judge ordered Husband to pay 37% of each child’s college expenses. Husband appealed the trial court’s order for failing to consider that the older child was already previously emancipated and for failing to conduct a plenary hearing.

In order to decide whether a child is emancipated requires a fact-sensitive analysis. The essential inquiry is whether the child has moved “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own.” (Filippone v. Lee, 204 N.J.Super. 301, 308 (App. Div. 1997) (quoting Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J.Super. 593,598 (Ch. Div. 1995).

The Court recognized that many children often delay entering a secondary-schooling immediately following their graduation from High School. “Often times following secondary school, a child may delay commencing higher education pursuits requiring a court to examine the hiatus, the reason for delay after his graduation from high school, and the reasonableness of imposing a parental obligation to pay support for a previously emancipated child. (Sakovits v. Sakovits, 178 N.J. Super. 623 (Ch. Div. 1981).

Accordingly, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision to unemancipate the older child due to their return to full-time college.

Regarding the Husband’s obligation to contribute 37% towards the children’s college expenses, the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded. Among the financial considerations to be reviewed when evaluating a parent’s obligation to contribute to a child’s college expenses are: (1) the amount sought by the child; (2) the ability of the parent to pay that cost; (3) the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child; (4) the financial resources of both parents; (5) the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust, the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation; (6) and the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans. (Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).

Applying the afore-mentioned principles, the trial court essentially failed to examine the amount of college expenses sought; Husband’s available income and assets; Husband’s expenses, including child support for both children and the college costs paid for the older child; Husband’s household costs, including the need to maintain necessary expenses; the expense, if applicable for Husband’s master’s program; and Wife’s income, assets and expenses.

As such, the trial judge, on remand, must properly consider the foregoing factors when determining what Husband’s percentage should be towards the younger child’s college expenses.

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