Ocean County Judge Publishes Opinion on College Contribution

Ocean County Family Judge Lawrence R. Jones has written another excellent published decision in the case of Black v. Black. The case deals with the ever complex issue of college contributions. Judges Jones ordered counseling between a college-aged student and his parent that had a strained relationship, found that the cost of attending a state college at a substantially cheaper rate than the child’s first preference is a relevant issue for the court to consider, and that other factors, such as younger siblings that are likely to attend college in the future, should be considered when the court determines a college contribution plan.
In Black v. Black, the oldest child had a very strained relationship with his father. When the child was in college, his mother sought contribution from the father for its cost based on their marital settlement agreement. The father opposed the contribution because he did not have a relationship with his son. Judge Jones discussed that one of the Newburgh factors to be considered when determining college contribution is the “child’s relationship with the paying parent.” Judge Jones also discussed the 2006 holding of Gac v. Gac which held that a relationship between a non-custodial parent and child is not required for financial contribution to college. He then went on to balance Newburgh and Gac finding that the “parent-child relationship is not the sole and exclusive factor in the analysis, but rather one of multiple Newburgh factors for review,” essentially saying that whether or not there is a relationship between the parent and child is the end of the analysis.

In determining that the father still had to contribute toward his son’s college costs, Judge Jones ordered that it was contingent upon the son attending counsel sessions with his father. In making this holding, the judge considered the past relationship between the parent and child and also the present relationship, which includes any active attempts to address all ongoing issues.

The court then turned to the issue of the cost of in-state tuition as opposed to more expensive private decision. Citing Finger v. Zenn, Judge Jones found that a fact sensitive analysis must be performed to determine what effect cheaper in-state tuition has on college contribution. While Finger held that a parent cannot be limited to contribute to the child’s college cost only equal to the amount of in-state tuition at Rutgers (rejecting the “Rutgers Rule”), Judge Jones found that the court can still consider the less expensive alternatives available when going through its analysis. Judge Jones also pointed out that no matter what school a child wishes to attend, “no parent should be expected to contribute more than he or she can reasonably afford.” In that regard, just because a child wishes to go to a more expensive school, the parent’s financial ability to contribute is not increased. In a case where a parent cannot afford to send the child to the more expensive school, the burden would be on the child to cover the additional costs.

Finally, Judge Jones found that there is an additional Newburgh factor that was not expressly stated in the case. He found that when there are younger children who are close to college age and are good students, this can be a relevant factor in determining how much money parents should contribute to the oldest child’s college education. In making this finding, the judge found that this is a more equitable solution, allowing all of the children to get equal contribution towards college. This rejects the rather antiquated tradition of exhausting all available resources for the eldest child while the youngest children suffer because the parents have no further funds to contribute to their education. Utilizing this analysis, Judge Jones made the Blacks contribute a set amount each month for the next eight years in three different college accounts for each of their children. This set up would allow certainty for the parents so they can budget the amount they must contribute on a monthly basis while also equalizing contribution for each of the children. Judge Jones’ solution to this complex issue is well reasoned and, in my opinion, extremely fair and equitable to all of those involved.