No Parent-Child Relationship: Do I Still Have to Pay for College?

May 23, 2020

New Jersey case law has evolved to require parents, who have the financial means, to contribute to their children’s college tuition and expenses.  For divorced parents, the court weighs several factors to determine the respective contribution of each parent, including the ability of each parent to pay and the child’s relationship with the paying parent.  

A notable exception to the general rule above is if a parent-child relationship is irreparably severed, particularly if the child has expressed an unwillingness to reconcile with the payor.  This exception was at issue in a recent unpublished Appellate Division case, Weinman v. Weinman.  Despite a divorce agreement requiring both parties to contribute to their children’s college tuition and expenses, the parent-child relationship between the father and the parties’ children deteriorated to such an extent that he was not obligated to pay for their college education.       

In Weinman, the parties divorced in 2003 after 9 years of marriage and entered a divorce agreement regarding child custody, college contribution, and other issues.  They had a son and daughter born in 1988 and 2000, respectively.  

Defendant (ex-wife) had primary residential custody of the children and Plaintiff (ex-husband) enjoyed parenting time one night per week and alternating weekends.  Regarding future college expenses, the agreement provided that the parties would have a financial obligation to contribute based on their respective incomes and financial ability and that each party would confer with each other about the choice of college and the cost. 

In the years following their divorce, the parties’ battle over parenting time was extremely contentious, and the judge found that Defendant was intentionally blocking Plaintiff’s parenting time and manipulating the children against him at every turn.  Defendant even solicited the assistance of her now-husband, which led to confrontations at the children’s sporting events.  

In 2009, a therapeutic mediator and a parenting time coordinator were employed to attempt to resolve the custody issues.  However, parenting time issues continued for the years to come.  Plaintiff filed a motion in 2015 for reunification therapy with the children, which was granted but proved unsuccessful.    

In 2015, the children began the college search process.  A best interest evaluation was ordered in August 2015.  Both Defendant and the parties’ daughter pointed blame at Plaintiff for the lack of any relationship between him and the children.  

In September 2015, Defendant underwent a psychological evaluation, which concluded she was “guarded and defensive” and that she was primarily responsible for preventing any reconciliation between Plaintiff and the children.   The evaluator diagnosed Defendant with “histrionic personality disorder.”  On the other hand, the evaluator concluded that Plaintiff “displayed appropriate expectations of the growth and development of the children, as well as an understanding of appropriate family roles.”  

The parties’ son started applying to colleges in December 2015 without any input from Plaintiff.  In April 2016, Plaintiff e-mailed the parties’ son recommending that he attend Penn State for engineering and offered to pay $12,000 per year toward tuition.  The son rejected the offer and did not attend Penn State.

In May 2016, Defendant e-mailed Plaintiff stating their son had decided on a school.  Based on the son’s enrollment, the court granted Defendant’s motion for college contribution and ordered Plaintiff to pay half the expenses pending a plenary hearing, which Plaintiff complied with for 2 semesters.  

Plaintiff expressed the same support to the parties’ daughter when she started applying in October 2017.  However, the daughter responded to the effect of not wanting any relationship with him. 

The parties held a 21-day plenary hearing regarding custody and college contribution.  The judge stated, “this may be the worst case of parent alienation this court has ever seen.” The judge found that both children chose to exclude Plaintiff from the college selection process and ordered both children emancipated.  In addition, the judge held that Plaintiff was not responsible for any college contribution and even ordered that any contribution he had made be reimbursed to him. 

On Defendant’s appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the judge and held that, “in situations where a child seeks neither a relationship, nor guidance from a parent, and instead looks to a parent only as a source of funds, that parent is relieved of the obligation to fund the child’s college education.” 

The Appellate Division rejected Defendant’s argument that the parties’ prior agreement was “irrevocable”, stating that where circumstances have changed in such a way that it would no longer be fair and equitable to require a party to pay for college, the judge has the authority to modify the agreement.

If you have any questions regarding child custody and/or college contribution, please contact the skilled matrimonial attorneys at Sarno da Costa D’Aniello Maceri LLC.  Call us today at (973) 274-5200.

Cite: Weinman v. Weinman, 2020 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 890 (App. Div. 2020).