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Gac v. Gac

May 18, 2006

GAYNELL GAC, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
PAUL GAC, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

This case involves the question of whether a father must pay the college debt owed by his estranged daughter.

Gaynell and Paul Gac were divorced in Ocean County in 1987. At the time of their divorce, the Gac's two children, Justin and Alyssa, were twelve and nine, respectively. The trial court did not order visitation between the father and the children. Although the father attempted to establish a "one way" relationship by sending occasional gifts, cards, and letters -- as recommended by Dr. Mathias Hagovsky, who performed a psychological evaluation of the family -- in 1994, the father received a package containing many of the cards, letters, and checks he had sent the children. The package also included a message from then sixteen-year-old Alyssa telling him that they didn't "want anything to do with you."

In 1989, the father had remarried and became the stepfather to two children. A child was born to that family in 1994.

Eventually, Alyssa sought to attend college. During the college selection process, she did not involve her father in any way. On financial aid applications, she noted that her father was not part of her life, was not assisting in financing her way through college, and that his whereabouts were currently unknown. Throughout this period, the father continued to make child support payments.

Alyssa graduated from Quinnipiac College, a private school, in 2000. On July 11th of that year, the father moved to terminate child support for both Justin and Alyssa. The mother opposed the motion and cross-moved for continuation of child support for Alyssa and for reimbursement of the cost of her college tuition. The motion court terminated the father's child support but ordered him to pay up to one-half of Alyssa's outstanding college loans.

On appeal, the Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for a hearing to consider the twelve factors enunciated in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982), in connection with a divorced parent's financial obligations in respect of a child's college education. The trial court concluded that although the father might not have paid much toward Alyssa's college education had the marriage lasted, he had "some responsibility for her higher undergraduate education." The court directed the father to pay 40% of Alyssa's loans, including accumulated interest.

The father again appealed to the Appellate Division. That court noted that it was difficult to balance the Newburgh factors in this case because there were equitable considerations supporting both sides. Although the Appellate Division concluded that the father had to contribute to Alyssa's college loans, it limited his reimbursement to $20,000, inclusive of interest.

The Supreme Court granted Paul Gac's petition for certification.

HELD: Under the unusual circumstances presented and in light of the lateness of the application for financial contribution, a fair balancing of the factors enumerated in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982), and the relevant provisions of the statute relating to child support, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a)(5), demonstrates that the non-custodial parent should not have to contribute to the child's college loans.

1. The father argues that the first Newburgh factor -- whether a non-custodial parent would have contributed to the child's higher education if the family had remained together -- should be viewed as a threshold that the mother has not met. In addition, he argues that it is a violation of the New Jersey and federal constitutions to compel divorced parents, but not married parents, to pay for their college educations. (pp. 7-8)

2. The need and capacity of a child for higher education are two of many factors a court must consider in determining the amount of child support. The Legislature and the courts have long recognized a child's need for higher education and that this need is a proper consideration in determining a parent's child support obligations. Six years after the decision in Newburgh, the Legislature, in amending the child support statute, essentially approved the criteria set forth in the Court's opinion. Thus, a trial court should balance the statutory criteria and the Newburgh factors, as well as any other relevant circumstances, to reach a fair and just decision. (pp. 9-12)

3. The first Newburgh factor is not a threshold factor. Rather, it is one of the numerous factors to be evaluated and weighed in determining whether a non-custodial parent must contribute to higher education expenses. Based on the factual findings of this case, the Court concludes that a fair balancing of the factors and other pertinent facts favors the father's position. (pp. 12-15)

4. A relationship between a non-custodial parent and a child is not required for the custodial parent or the child to ask the non-custodial parent for financial assistance to defray college expenses. In the within matter, during the period in question the mother received child support from the father and could have sought additional support for Alyssa's education. Also, Alyssa could have sought financial assistance from her father before she incurred her college expenses. Neither application was made until the father sought to terminate child support after Alyssa had graduated from college. The Newburgh factors, reaffirmed in this opinion, contemplate that a parent or child seeking contribution towards the expenses of higher education will make the request before the educational expenses are incurred. The failure to do so will weigh heavily against the grant of a future application. (pp. 15-16).

5. It is not necessary for the disposition of this appeal for the Court to decide the constitutional issue raised by the father. The Court therefore declines to consider it. (p. 17)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for the entry of an appropriate order.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, and RIVERA-SOTO join in ...


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