A Child Is Entitled to a College Education Despite Biting the Hand That Feeds

A divorced parent must still pay college expenses for his estranged daughter who severed her relationship with him.

Divorced and divorcing parents in New Jersey are often shocked to learn that they may be legally obligated to provide their children in divorce that which they are not obligated to provide in marriage: namely a college education. The full extent of that obligation, however, is not always clear. In the case of Sciacca v. Hagarty, 2012 WL 127616 (N.J.Super.A.D.), the New Jersey Appellate Division recently held that a divorced father was still obligated to pay his daughter's college expenses despite the fact that during her senior year of high school she moved out of his house and insisted on residing exclusively with her mother following a serious conflict with her father. In so doing, she effectively severed her relationship with him. For the twelve years prior to that point, the daughter lived with both her mother and father on an equal basis. In fact, the mother paid the father child support.

When the daughter received her college acceptance later that year, the father notified the mother that he was not going to contribute to the daughter's college expenses because, in part, she had been "very abusive to [him] both physically and verbally [.]" Given her malicious conduct toward him, the father did not think it was fair to reward her with an education at the college of her choice. The father also claimed an unrelated lack of financial ability to share in the expenses. Ultimately, the mother filed a motion to compel the father's financial contribution.

In opposition to the motion, the father relied heavily on the case of Gac v. Gac, 351 N.J.Super. 54 (App. Div. 2002), which held that a parent is not be obligated to contribute to the college expenses of a child where the circumstances between them would make such a payment inequitable. Both the lower court and the Appellate Division found, however, that Gac was distinguishable from the present case. Specifically, the Appellate Division found that the "inequity" in Gac was based upon the fact that the father, despite his best efforts and desires, was denied any relationship with his children since the time they were 5 and 8 years old. Conversely, although there was a serious rift with his daughter, the appeals court emphasized the fact that Mr. Hagarty was previously involved in his daughter's college plans and actively participated in the application process while she lived with him until her senior year of high school. Accordingly, the Appellate Division ruled that, despite experiencing a serious conflict, "the relationship between [the] parent and child is not so poor that to compel college contribution would be inequitable."

As is the case with so many other aspects of divorce litigation, there is no precise definition of what constitutes circumstances that would make it inequitable to require a divorced or separated parent to contribute to the college expenses of an estranged child. Rather, it remains a question of degree left to the judgment of the trial court on a case by case basis.

Contributed by Jeffrey W. Plaza, who is a partner of the firm practicing in the area of divorce and family law.