Many parents entering into a divorce are surprised to learn that they may be responsible to pay for their children’s college education.  This requirement derives from a 1982 case called Newburgh v. Arrigo (88 N.J. 529).  The factors a court would consider can be found in the link.  But the question arises: what about graduate school education?  A recent unpublished case looked at the issue, particularly in light of the changes to the child support law that came into effect on February 1, 2017.

In J.C. v. A.C. ( FM-15-967-04N, Ocean County), Judge Jones considers whether a non-custodial parent has an obligation to pay for graduate school for their daughter.  The parents divorced in 2004 and their settlement agreement did not address graduate school specifically.  The agreement stipulated that they would jointly (but not necessarily equally) fund their children’s post-secondary education.  The amounts would be determined at the time the expense was incurred.  After the daughter received her Bachelor’s degree in accounting, she sought to attend graduate school for a Master’s degree.  Her mother filed a motion to compel her ex-husband to continue support for the daughter while she attended graduate school.  The husband filed a cross-motion to declare the daughter emancipated.

Very little case law exists addressing the issue of parents paying for graduate school or child support while in graduate school.  The court used the new child support law as a guide to address the issue.  The update to the law essentially terminates child support at the age of 19 — unless a court orders otherwise, but in no case beyond the age of 23.  The changed law does provide for other financial support beyond the age of 23 in exceptional circumstances.  The daughter in question just turned 23.

The court noted:

Generally speaking, there are major differences between the situation of an undergraduate student and a graduate student, the most obvious of which is that a graduate student already has a college degree, and therefore is generally and logically more able to become financially independent, even in a challenging economy.

The court, using the intentions of the changed child support law, put the burden of proof on the applicant as to why support should continue for graduate school:

In placing the burden of proof and persuasion upon the applicant rather than on the parent, the court finds and holds that such burden is not met simply by showing that an adult child has either enrolled in, or plans to enroll in, graduate school. Enrollment alone does not determine or conclude the analysis. At the very least, it is fair and appropriate to require the applicant to address, in addition to the Newburgh criteria, the following legitimate questions:

  1. Why can the college graduate not utilize his or her college degree to obtain a full time job to be self-supporting outside of the parental “sphere of influence”?
  2. Given that many people work and seek graduate degrees at the same time by going to graduate school at night or online, why are such options not available to this particular student?
  3. If the proposed graduate school program is so comprehensive and intense as to essentially make concurrent employment impractical or impossible, and if the adult student therefore needs additional money for expenses, what if any attempts have there been on his or her part to obtain additional funds as an adult through other sources besides one’s parents, such as loans?
  4. Why can the student not fund his or her own graduate school aspirations through a combination of working and student aid?
  5. Why is it fair and equitable for the graduate student’s parent(s), as opposed to the student, to be held continuously responsible on a court-ordered basis for financial maintenance of the student, particularly if the parents have already supported the child a for years after his or her 18th birthday, and/or helped fund tuition during the student’s undergraduate years while he or she
    pursued and obtained a college degree?

The court ultimately issued this ruling:

  1. Under newly enacted N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67, which formally goes into effect on February 1, 2017, a parent’s obligation to pay child support terminates by operation of law when a child reaches 19 years of age, unless a court orders an extension of payment which shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches 23 years of age;
  2. Under the terms of N.J.S.A 2A:17-56.67, the New Jersey Legislature has provided that a child over 23 may still possibly seek a court order requiring the payment of other forms of financial maintenance or reimbursement from a parent. Nothing in this new legislation, however,  reflects a legislative intent that a court must grant such relief , or refrain from emancipating a child who is 23 years of age and voluntarily decides to attend graduate school after earning a college degree. Nor does New Jersey prior case law, including Newburgh v. Arrigo, automatically require any
    parent to support or financially maintain an adult child who chooses to attend graduate school. New Jersey law does not prohibit the emancipation of a graduate school student who either is, or could be, independently functioning beyond the sphere of parental influence, and the sole fact that a college graduate decides to enroll in graduate school is insufficient by itself to automatically create or extend a parent’s obligation to financially support or maintain the child;
  3. An analysis of whether a non-custodial parent must continue financially supporting or maintaining a child over 18 reasonably differs when a child is an undergraduate student as opposed to a graduate student, who is generally older with a college degree, and who may logically be more expected to move outside the “sphere of parental influence” and begin proceeding with his or her life as an independent and self-reliant adult;
  4. If a 23 year old child college graduate with a bachelor’s degree elects to continue his or her education pursuits through graduate school, and asserts either directly or through a parent that that he or she should not be emancipated and that the other parent should still be responsible for financial maintenance of any sort, then it is the applicant’s burden of proof and persuasion to demonstrate why an order for such maintenance, as opposed to independence, is appropriate, necessary, and equitable under the circumstances.

The court scheduled another hearing to apply the ruling to the case’s facts, but the parties settled the case by emancipating the daughter.

Remember, this is an unpublished case.  It is not precedential but can be used as guidance.