Appellate Division Remands for Plenary Hearing on College Contribution

May 30, 2017

The husband and wife in Netta v. Monek were married from 1991 until 1994. Their only child was two years old when they divorced, so they delayed any decision on college contribution until “the appropriate time.” The husband and wife specified that they would either define their respective contributions themselves or submit the matter to the Family Part.

The husband and wife could not agree when the time came. In January 2011, the court ordered the husband to pay 68% of their daughter’s college expenses after loans, scholarships, and grants, and ordered the wife to pay the remaining 32%. The Family Part’s statement of reasons, without explanation, limited the husband’s contribution in a way that the order itself did not, providing that his duty to contribute applied “so long as the child is attending either Mercer County Community College (MCCC) or Rutgers University.”

In 2014, when the daughter was 22, the wife filed a motion requesting that the Family Part find the husband in violation of the January 2011 order and to compel him to pay 68% of the daughter’s expenses at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). The husband filed a cross-motion asking the court to emancipate the daughter or, alternatively, to decrease his child support obligation. The husband and wife painted very different pictures of the events preceding their motions. The husband alleged that the daughter dropped out of high school and did not finish her first semester at Rutgers in the fall of 2010. The husband also pointed to three semesters in which the daughter maintained less than fulltime status at MCCC: (1) spring 2011, when she earned nine credits; (2) fall 2012, when she earned six credits; and (3) spring 2013, when she earned nine credits. The husband argued that the daughter had no special needs that would excuse earning so few credits despite enrolling in a fulltime class schedule for eight straight semesters. The husband also alleged that the daughter worked fulltime, and that she and the wife had failed to keep him informed about the daughter’s education. The husband also asserted that he could not afford to contribute to additional college expenses because had a 10-year-old son from his second marriage, and that he soon hoped to retire from the police force.

The wife, however, contended that the daughter was a high school honor student who graduated with her class, although she attended her senior year at night because of anxiety issues. The wife conceded that the daughter withdrew from Rutgers her first semester, but asserted that she was a diligent, fulltime student at MCCC every semester thereafter, earning her associate’s in 2014 with a 3.83 grade point average. The wife explained that the daughter attended MCCC for 3 years because she was taking classes in a fixed order and creating a portfolio to pursue a career in photography. The wife also stated that she kept the husband apprised of the daughter’s academic progress, which she demonstrated by attaching numerous email conversations to her certification. Moreover, the wife claimed that the husband paid 68% of the daughter’s application costs to SVA and Parsons School of Design and, once the daughter chose SVA, he agreed to pay his share of the costs—until he received the bill. The wife stated that the husband paid “virtually zero” for the daughter’s college costs, and that his efforts to give the impression that he put her through four years of college already was “disingenuous.” Finally, the wife asserted that the daughter was a fulltime student who was clearly unemancipated, and that the husband’s goal of retiring at age 45 should not come at the cost of the daughter’s education.

The Family Part denied the wife’s requests to find the husband in violation of the earlier order and to compel him to pay his share of SVA costs. The court found that the husband was only required to pay 68% of the daughter’s expenses if she attended Rutgers or MCCC, and that the wife had not shown that the husband agreed to pay anything toward SVA. The Family Part also denied the husband’s petition to emancipate the daughter or decrease his child support obligation. The court found the daughter was not emancipated because she still lived with the wife, was continuing her education, and did not work fulltime, as the husband had claimed. The judge also found no changed circumstances warranting a child support reduction, observing that the husband made more than $100,000 per year.

Both the husband and the wife appealed. Finding that the spouses’ views about the daughter’s academic capability and her commitment to her education “could not be more diametrically opposed,” the Appellate Division concluded that the Family Part should have held a plenary hearing before deciding the motions. Based on the conflicting certifications of the husband and wife, the Family Part accepted that the daughter was unemancipated and pursuing higher education, and that the husband had no obligation to contribute to her educational costs. However, the Appellate Division explained that the court made no reference to the 12 factors set out in Newburgh v. Arrigo to determine whether the husband was required to contribute to the daughter’s college expenses.

The Appellate Division found genuine issues of material fact on critical issues, including whether the daughter was emancipated or was instead a fulltime student entitled to continuing parental support. Accordingly, the Appellate Division remanded the case to the Family Part for a plenary hearing.

If you have an issue with child support or college contribution, contact the skilled matrimonial attorneys at Sarno da Costa D’Aniello Maceri LLCCall us today at (973) 274-5200.