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Margaret Sosa Chinea v. Robert Vargas

March 31, 2011


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Passaic County, Docket No. FD-16-0808-91.

Per curiam.


Argued December 7, 2010

Before Judges Graves and Waugh.

Defendant Robert Vargas appeals the order of the Family Part requiring him to contribute to his son's college tuition and refusing to reduce his child support payments while the son is in college. We affirm.

The parties, who have a college-age son, were never married. In January 2009, plaintiff Margaret Sosa Chinea filed an application for an increase in child support and for an order requiring Vargas to pay for their son's college education. The Family Part judge held a plenary hearing on July 8, 2009. The judge issued an order on August 19, 2009, requiring Vargas to pay sixty percent of his son's college tuition for each semester in which he was registered for at least twelve credits toward an undergraduate degree. He also ordered that Vargas continue paying child support at the rate of $130 per week. That rate was established when the son was approximately five-years old.

Vargas appealed. We ordered a limited remand to the Family Part because the judge had not made findings of fact and conclusions of law, as required by R. 1:7-4(a). The judge issued a brief letter opinion, following which the parties filed their briefs and the appeal was argued.

The facts in this appeal are largely uncontested. At the time of the hearing, Chinea's annual income was approximately $80,000, whereas Vargas's income was approximately $94,000.

The son has been attending the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany since September 2008. He resides in campus housing. The total cost for tuition, room, and board for the first year was about $24,000. Chinea paid for those expenses, plus approximately $7000 more in additional expenses. She had to borrow to do so. The son applied for and received some financial assistance in the form of student loans.

Vargas testified at the hearing that he would like his son to attend college. However, he contends that he was not consulted with respect to the choice of college, that his son should have attended a college in New Jersey with a lower tuition, and that he cannot afford to contribute to his son's college expenses. He also asserts that his son should live at Chinea's home while in college, pointing to what he argues are past behavioral problems indicative of a need for closer parental oversight.

We ordinarily accord great deference to the discretionary decisions of Family Part judges. Donnelly v. Donnelly, 405 N.J. Super. 117, 127 (App. Div. 2009) (citing Larbig v. Larbig, 384 N.J. Super. 17, 21 (App. Div. 2006)). Similar deference is accorded to the factual findings of those judges following an evidentiary hearing. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). A judge's purely legal decisions are subject to our plenary review. Crespo v. Crespo, 395 N.J. Super. 190, 194 (App. Div. 2007); Lobiondo v. O'Callaghan, 357 N.J. Super. 488, 495 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 177 N.J. 224 (2003).

In determining the extent to which parents must contribute to a child's college education, the Family Part must consider the twelve factors set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982):

In evaluating the claim for contribution toward the cost of higher education, courts should consider all relevant factors, including (1) whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education; (2) the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education; (3) the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education; (4) the ability of the parent to pay that cost; (5) the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child; (6) the financial resources of both parents; (7) the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education; (8) the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust; (9) the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans; (11) the child's relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and (12) the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.

These factors were reflected in later legislation concerning the parents' child support obligations. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a); see Kiken v. ...

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