If you are a parent who is paying child support, you're probably well aware that child support doesn't automatically terminate when your child turns 18. In fact, New Jersey is one of the few states that doesn't state a specific age for when child support ends, which means that parents are expected to help pay for their children's college education. Parents can, however, object to paying if the relationship with their child is significantly strained through no fault of their own. Of course, many individuals do have a somewhat strained relationship with their parents, but some children deliberately cut themselves off from their families.
The estrangement may be necessary under extreme circumstances such as abuse or addiction, but as a general rule, the courts do expect children to have a respectful and responsive relationship with both parents. Thus, when a child chooses to alienate a parent, e.g., refusing to visit, ignoring phone calls, etc., the courts take this into consideration when ruling on whether a parent should pay for a child's college education. This factor was a pivotal issue in a 2014 case involving Caitlyn Ricci, who sued her estranged parents for the funds to cover tuition at an out-of-state school. Her parents, who are divorced, stated that they were willing to pay for tuition at a school in New Jersey, and that it was within their parental rights to set such limitations.
The superior court sided with Caitlyn, citing the landmark case, Newburgh v. Arrigo, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that divorced parents, as a general rule, must provide their children with a post-secondary education. This was a highly controversial ruling because it wasn't as if Caitlyn's parents were refusing to pay for college; their only condition was that she attend an in-state school. It's interesting to note that had the parents stayed married, it would be perfectly within their rights to set such restrictions. In fact, it would be perfectly legal for them to refuse to pay for college altogether.
Another important issue was that Caitlyn voluntarily left her mother's house to go live with her grandparents. She also cut off contact with both parents, to the point where they were preparing to file a declaration of emancipation, which would cut her off from all forms of child support. Her parents felt that Caitlyn's voluntary estrangement from them should have been a critical factor in the court's ruling. The parents have filed an appeal,, so it will be of great interest to see how the Appellate Division weighs Caitlyn's needs and interests against her intentional lack of a relationship with her parents.
Caitlyn's story is a good example of how children's needs change, and often increase over time. As a paying parent, it's important to work out these arrangements ahead of time with help from an experienced family law attorney. For more information on your child support rights and legal options, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.