The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that, generally, financially capable parents should contribute to the college costs of children who are qualified students. In appropriate circumstances, parental responsibility includes the duty to pay for college and even graduate school. When determining a claim for contribution to college costs, the Court must consider the relevant factors:
Whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education;
The effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education;
The amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education;
The ability of the parent to pay that cost;
The relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child;
The financial resources of both parents;
The commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education;
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;
The availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
The child’s relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and
The relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long‑range goals of the child.
Among these factors, the parents’ ability to pay is clearly the most significant.
Note, however, that while the Court Rules state that the Guidelines must not be used to determine parental contributions for college, the Court may apply the Guidelines to determine support for students over eighteen years of age who commute to college.
Termination of Child Support (Emancipation)
In general, emancipation is the act by which a parent relinquishes the right to custody and is no longer required to pay child support. The fact that a child has reached the age of eighteen provides prima facie (translation: at first sight) proof that he or she should be emancipated, and it shifts the burden to the opposing party to prove that assumption incorrect.
Although parents generally are not under a duty to support children after the age of majority, emancipation is not automatically granted upon reaching any particular age. Rather, the determination is fact-sensitive, and the Court must examine the circumstances of each individual case. Recently, given that parents now tend to support their children well beyond the age of eighteen, Courts have expressed some reluctance to emancipate at that age. An important New Jersey Supreme Court case stating that parents are generally not under a duty to support children after eighteen seems somewhat outdated as a result. Nevertheless, the manner in which emancipation is applied varies widely between judges and is rooted, to some extent, in their personal opinions on the matter.
To decide whether emancipation is the proper course, the Court must determine whether the child has “moved beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtained an independent status of his or her own.” That phrase will ultimately be used to determine any contested emancipation case. The “sphere of influence” determination involves a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child’s need, interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability, among other things. Courts have held that a child should not be emancipated based on events that have not yet occurred.
When emancipation concerns a child attending college, the Courts have held that failure of an individual to pass his or her college courses, reinforced by his failure to return the next semester, virtually mandated emancipation. Courts have further held that the duty to support a child’s college education does not require that emancipation be deferred when a child is unable to perform adequately in his academic program.
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