Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Ocean County, Family Part
A. BLACK,  Plaintiff,
B. BLACK, Defendant
Approved for Publication June 13, 2014.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Abigale M. Stolfe for plaintiff ( Stolfe, Ziegler & Legreide, attorneys).
B. Black, defendant, Pro se.
[436 N.J.Super. 134] L. R. JONES, J.S.C.
This case presents three significant legal issues regarding a divorced parent's obligation to contribute to the cost of a child's college education, when he has previously agreed to do so in a matrimonial settlement agreement. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, the court holds the following:
1. When there is a damaged relationship between a college-age student and a parent, the court may order the student to attend joint counseling with the parent as a condition of the student receiving ongoing financial assistance from that parent for college tuition, so long as there is no compelling reason to keep the parent and student physically apart.
2. The option of attending college at a state college or a private college, at substantially less cost than the student's school of first preference, is a relevant issue for the court's consideration. The Appellate Division's reported opinion in Finger v. Zenn, 335 N.J.Super. 438, 762 A.2d 702 (App. Div.2000) does not hold to the contrary.
3. While the Supreme Court case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 443 A.2d 1031 (1982) sets forth a list of factors for a court to consider on the issue of college contribution, a case may present additional equitable factors for consideration as well. One such additional factor is whether the student has younger siblings of relatively close age who are also likely to attend college in the near future. In such circumstance, there may be a need for implementation of a reasonable financial plan which fairly allocates present and future contemplated funding resources among all of the parties' children, rather than exhausting [436 N.J.Super. 135] such resources primarily or exclusively on the oldest child who happens to be first in line for college.
Plaintiff and defendant were married for seventeen years. They had three children together, all within a six-year span. The parties divorced in July 2010, and entered into a comprehensive written matrimonial settlement agreement. Each party was represented by counsel at the time.
As part of the resolution, the parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their children, C.B. (then age 16), N.B. (then age 13), and J.B. (then age 10). By consent, plaintiff was named the children's primary residential custodian, with defendant having the right to reasonable and liberal parenting time. Additionally, as there were ongoing problems in the relationship between defendant and the oldest child, C.B., the parties agreed that father/son counseling would take place.
The parties concurred at the time that for support purposes, plaintiff had an imputed annual income of $20,000, while defendant had an imputed annual income of
$60,000. Utilizing these financial baselines, the parties further agreed that defendant would pay plaintiff $300 per week in alimony, along with child support under New Jersey's child support guidelines. Additionally, the parties jointly stipulated that they would each contribute to their children's future college costs. The exact amounts of such future contribution were left unquantified at the time. Specifically, the settlement agreement stated the following:
The parties recognize they have a joint, but not necessarily equal, obligation to provide a college education or post high school education for the children. The precise amount of their respective contributions shall be determined at the time the college expense is incurred. This determination shall be based upon a review of each party's overall financial circumstances including their actual or imputed [436 N.J.Super. 136] income, as well as their assets and obligations including, but not limited to, the Husband's obligation to pay child support . . . .
The agreement did not address whether a parent's obligation to help fund college tuition for a child was dependent or contingent upon that child having an ongoing relationship with that parent.
Following the divorce, joint father/son counseling did not occur. While C.B. met with a counselor individually, he refused to participate in joint therapy, contending that he did not want to see his father because defendant treated him badly prior to the divorce. Reciprocally, while defendant admitted that the father/son relationship had been hostile at times in the past, he denied mistreating C.B., and pointed out that at no time did the police, or the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), or any other investigating agency or court, ever find that he had abused, neglected, or mistreated C.B. or any of the other children.
While defendant asserted that he wanted to have a relationship with C.B. following the divorce, he did not pursue the issue as aggressively as he might have under the circumstances. Instead, joint counseling between father and son never took place, and the [436 N.J.Super. 137] emotional wounds infecting the parent/child relationship were essentially left untreated. Consequently, between 2010 and 2012, defendant and C.B. had no real contact with each other. Meanwhile, neither father nor son undertook any significant
initiative to extend an olive branch by forgiving, apologizing for, or otherwise constructively addressing any previous hurtful comments or actions from the past. Instead, both did little besides simmer in a stalemate, silently and unproductively blaming each other for acting disrespectfully and causing the breakdown of the relationship.
Notably, defendant exercised parenting time with the two younger children following the divorce. In fact, the middle child, N.B., briefly stayed with defendant and lived under his roof for a short time before ultimately changing her mind and returning back to plaintiff's care. Moreover, the youngest child, J.B., regularly spent alternating weekends with defendant without any allegations of parental mistreatment.
All three of the children have been successful students. In 2012, C.B. graduated from high school with honors, and was accepted into Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The annual estimated cost for C.B. to attend Rutgers was approximately $12,000. A large portion of this cost was anticipated to be covered by available grants, scholarships, and loans.
Regarding any uncovered balance at Rutgers, plaintiff and defendant were unable to reach an agreement in 2012 on what amount, if any, each party should contribute. In particular, defendant objected to contributing anything towards C.B.'s college education, largely because C.B. continued to refuse to have any type of relationship with him. Reciprocally, plaintiff urged that irrespective of the poor relationship between defendant and C.B., defendant should nonetheless still contribute to C.B.'s college costs as he originally committed to do in the settlement agreement. While plaintiff did not initially set forth a request for a specific dollar amount of college contribution, it became apparent during the proceedings that she was seeking a court order requiring [436 N.J.Super. 138] defendant to be responsible for a substantial portion of C.B.'s uncovered college expenses.
With the parties at an impasse, post-judgment litigation ensued. Meanwhile, C.B. enrolled at Rutgers, with plaintiff raising approximately $4000 to help pay the uncovered balance of tuition. There was no voluntary contribution at the time from defendant, pending the outcome of the litigation. In the interim, C.B. attended Rutgers as a freshman and did very well in his studies. In the midst of this case, however, C.B. decided that following the conclusion of his freshman year, he wanted to transfer from Rutgers to the University of Miami in Florida. He desired to switch colleges because he was interested in marine biology and, in his view, the University of Miami offered a superior program in this area of study than did Rutgers or other potentially less expensive schools. Unlike Rutgers, which was a state university, the University of Miami was an out-of-state, private institution, which was substantially more expensive than Rutgers. The anticipated annual cost of tuition and related expenses at the University of Miami was approximately $55,000, less $33,000 in estimated financial aid, leaving an estimated uncovered balance of approximately $22,000 per year
Accordingly, in this litigation, plaintiff and C.B. sought contribution from defendant, both for C.B.'s freshman year at Rutgers and for his anticipated sophomore through senior years at University of Miami. In turn, defendant continued to object
to paying anything towards C.B.'s tuition, either at Rutgers or the University of Miami. Over the course of several months of pre-trial proceedings, attempts at resolution by mutual settlement proved unsuccessful, and the case ultimately proceeded to a contested plenary hearing.
During C.B.'s freshman year at Rutgers, the court conducted and completed the hearing, in which both parties and C.B. testified [436 N.J.Super. 139] in detail. The evidence established that while plaintiff and C.B. had a close mother/son bond, defendant and C.B. continued to have a very fractured relationship. Both father and son provided subjective, anecdotal testimony and versions of past events and arguments from years earlier. The exact origin of the conflict, however, was never made completely clear. Accordingly, the available evidence did not reflect or support any definitive conclusion as to whether son or father was comparatively more at fault in either initially causing the conflict, or in continuing the ongoing animosities thereafter.
No psychologist was called by either party to testify in the hearing. After observing and listening to both sides testify in court, however, a reasonable layperson could fairly conclude that father and son each have a stubborn streak in their personalities. In this respect, the apple may not have fallen far from the tree. Further, and regardless of how and why the acrimony and hard feelings actually began, one might further reasonably infer that both father and son have each significantly contributed to the perpetuation of the rift due to a commonly shared trait of enormous pride, which is poisoning the parent/child bond and feeding this ongoing family conflict far longer than reasonably necessary or appropriate.
Notwithstanding this history, defendant credibly represents that he still wants to reconcile with C.B. and hopefully move towards a more positive relationship with him. In furtherance of this goal, defendant wishes to initiate the long-deferred father/son joint counseling and reunification therapy. C.B., however, is not nearly as open to the concept of mutually mending fences at this time. Regarding meaningful professional intervention through joint counseling, C.B. is noncommittal and is visibly resistant to the idea of voluntarily attending therapy with his father. Notwithstanding same, however, he simultaneously seeks to have his father help him pay college tuition at Rutgers and thereafter at the University of Miami.
[436 N.J.Super. 140] The pressing question before the court is what amount, if any, defendant should pay towards C.B.'s college education under these circumstances. The inquiry involves particular focus on three important legal issues: (1) mandatory parent/child counseling; (2) the relevance and availability of less expensive and more affordable state and private schools, and (3) the ...