New Jersey Court Orders Parents to Pay for Child’s College

In a story that has attracted national attention and outrage, a high-school-now-college student sued her divorced parents for college tuition, and recently a New Jersey family court judge ordered that the parents pay $16,000 to their daughter so she can attend Temple University – even though the parents claim they cannot afford to pay.

The story began in 2013, when as a senior in high school Caitlyn Ricci decided to move out of her parents’ house because she refused to comply with certain house rules regarding school.  Did Caitlyn move into a hostel or live on the street?  No, she moved in with her paternal grandparents, who also fronted her the legal fees to sue her parents for college tuition.

The New Jersey ruling stems from a statute and a series of appellate court cases that have held divorced parents that are financially capable must contribute to the higher education costs of their children.

The New Jersey case continues, as the parents have vowed to appeal and Caitlyn continues to pursue her education.

Could this happen in Missouri?  Could a Missouri court order divorced parents to foot the entire bill for college tuition to the college of a child’s choice?

Unlike New Jersey, Missouri has no explicit statute ordering divorced parents to pay some or all of the costs of higher education for their children.  No Missouri court has specifically ruled on the issue.  Rather, most courts in Missouri understand college costs as an extraordinary educational expense that can be considered part of the child support calculations on a Form 14 used to determine a presumed child support award.  Some courts have ordered parents to pay up to the cost of in-state tuition at the University of Missouri-Columbia.  But all of these actions remain in a state of legal limbo because no appellate court has declared whether any of these actions are in fact authorized by statute.

Further complicating matters:  Missouri has a statutory provision that child support continues after a child reaches majority – age eighteen – if the child enrolls in a program of higher education the October following high school graduation and meets certain academic and notice requirements.  As long as the child complies, the support obligation continues until the child turns twenty-one.

If the Ricci case played out in Missouri, the absence of an award of college expenses in the original decree would require the parties to move to modify.  A child has no standing to move to modify, so that would have ended the litigation quickly.  If Caitlyn could establish standing to enforce a support obligation under changed circumstances, she still would have the significant hurdle of emancipation – by moving out of the house and declaring her independence, Missouri courts would consider her emancipated, at which point a duty of support ends.  Even if she could get past that barrier, no court would order a parent to pay tuition beyond the parent’s ability to pay.

In a broader context, the Ricci case raises the equal protection issue of divorced parents having an obligation to pay for college that married parents do not share.  As that distinction seems irrational, it should keep states from enforcing such an obligation – Pennsylvania’s appellate court has actually so ruled.

So, while the Ricci case seems an unlikely winner in Missouri, if a parent seeks contribution for tuition – which is quite common – our courts use multiple methods of enforcing some obligation, none of which have explicit support in our law.  As with many other areas of divorce, parents would be wise to negotiate an agreed upon amount of contribution and percent distribution as part of the original decree rather than leave that obligation to the courts if they want to limit their level of exposure.

If you have questions about college expenses and divorce, contact us – we can help.