Conn, J.d.c. (temporarily assigned).
[167 NJSuper Page 442] This post-divorce controversy focuses on the recurring question of the outer limits of a support obligation for a child who has attained majority. Continuing education of the child, through enrollment in a college, university or other post high school training program, has already been established as a possible basis for prolonging the noncustodial parent's support obligation beyond the age of majority. See Khalaf v. Khalaf , 58 N.J. 63 (1971); Limpert v. Limpert , 119 N.J. Super. 438 (App. Div. 1972); Jonitz v. Jonitz , 25 N.J. Super. 544 (App. Div. 1953); Schumm v. Schumm , 122 N.J. Super. 146 (Ch. Div. 1973), and Straver v. Straver , 26 N.J. Misc. 218 (Ch. 1948).
In this controversy the continuing education concept moves to the next level. For at issue here is the question of whether graduate school enrollment should likewise be construed as sufficient grounds for prolonging the noncustodial parent's support obligation, in this case for a 23-year-old, only child of a marriage. The question is a novel one in New Jersey.
Plaintiff mother, by judgment of divorce of October 19, 1973 and under an agreement made a part of that judgment, was to receive $17.50 a week from the defendant father for the support of the child, Jane, "until emancipated."
Jane is now completing her first year of law school at Seton Hall University, to which she commutes as a full-time student. She graduated Seton Hall University in May 1978, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude. Defendant father continued the support payments until the week after Jane graduated college. Plaintiff mother thereafter moved to compel defendant to continue that support for Jane until she completes law school. Defendant objected; memos were submitted. Thereafter a plenary hearing was held and the following factual picture, essentially uncontroverted, developed.
As a high school student Jane indicated an early interest in becoming a lawyer. The testimony revealed that she had shown an interest in government and history and was advised by guidance counselors to consider pursuing a law career. The parties separated in 1972 when Jane was 15 and a sophomore in high school. She has always been in the custody of plaintiff mother. There was no persuasive proof that defendant was ever included in discussions with Jane as to her desires for a law career. The father was invited to and attended her high school graduation in 1974, but has not seen her again until these proceedings. The father never sought visitation with his daughter other than to tell her, at the time of separation in 1972, that "his door was always open to her." Likewise, Jane never took affirmative steps for visitation with her father and stated that her father always sent her a card with a money gift for her birthday and at Christmas. She
always sent him a "thank you" note in which she briefly would describe her current activities.
At the divorce hearing in 1973, when the terms of the support obligation were reviewed, plaintiff testified that Jane would probably be going to law school. Nevertheless, there was no understanding reached with regard to how long support would continue.
The father is a chemical worker who earns approximately $16,000 a year. He has remarried and his present wife works. They own their own home and are presently supporting a daughter of defendant's present wife from her prior marriage. Neither party produced any evidence of professional training or of any post-high school education.
Plaintiff is a bookkeeper and earns approximately $12,000 a year. She has not remarried. She has paid and continues to pay for both college and law school, including all fees, tuition costs and books.
At the outset the father claims that he is entitled to a ruling, as a matter of law, that the maximum period for which support should continue would be up to graduation from an accredited college or university. He insists there must be a limit and that the cases, when analyzed, all suggest the completion of college as the outer limit of the support obligation. The argument continues that even if law school was the clearly established goal, there is nothing to prevent the child in question upon graduation from college from going to work and attaining her graduate degree by going to law school part-time.
However, a review of the case law on the subject, specifically, Khalaf v. Khalaf , 58 N.J. 63 (1971), and other cases cited therein, suggests that the question is an open one in which the court is free to apply various tests to assess the overall situation as to what the reasonable expectations are, the parties' means, etc., and what obligation, if any, there should be on the noncustodial parent. In short, the court is satisfied that there is ...