Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) and Parties’ Obligations Towards Their Sons’ College Costs
Docket No. A-4146-19
Decided: October 1, 2021
Submitted by New Jersey Family Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
In a recent unpublished decision in the Appellate Division of New Jersey affirmed the trial court’s orders in regard to a matrimonial matter and the parties’ obligations towards their sons’ college costs and concomitant award for counsel fees.
The parties had four sons during their twenty-year marriage. When they divorced in 2013, they entered into a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) which included a provision regarding college costs for their children. Paragraph 14 of the PSA states:
All reasonable and agreed upon college and secondary education costs shall be divided between the parties after any and all financial aid is received by said children, the cost of which shall be paid with the [plaintiff] paying 50% of the cost and [defendant] paying 50% of the cost of same. Further, parties shall exchange tax documentation during the respective child’s junior year prior to high school graduation. Any and all reasonable and agreed upon extra-curricular activities shall be paid equally between the parties. Education costs include, but are not limited to: tuition, room, board, miscellaneous school fees, books, reasonable transportation to and from the school and any reasonable related costs and expenses. The parties shall consult with each other and with the children with a view toward providing each child with the best education possible in view of their particular circumstances, each child’s educational abilities and desires, and the parties’ then existing financial responsibility.
In addition, under the PSA, plaintiff agreed to pay the loan taken by the parties during the marriage for their two older sons’ college education.
In 2017, plaintiff filed a motion to reduce his child support obligation; defendant cross-moved to compel plaintiff to pay his share of college costs for their third son, Ryan. The court ordered plaintiff to pay $10,000 for Ryan’s first year of college, with a five percent incremental increase each year thereafter. After plaintiff appealed the order, the Appellate Division remanded for the trial court’s consideration of the factors set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo. On remand, Judge Thomas K. Isenhour conducted a two-day plenary hearing and issued a comprehensive written decision setting forth his findings of fact and analysis of the Newburgh factors. In a March 23, 2020, order, Judge Isenhour required plaintiff to contribute fifty percent of the college costs for Ryan and Zachary. The judge also awarded defendant $39,964.50 in counsel fees. Plaintiff’s subsequent motion for reconsideration was denied. Although the initial suit only concerned Ryan’s college costs, by the time of the remand, Zachary, the parties’ youngest son, had begun college and the parties agreed that the plenary hearing would address both sons’ college costs. Defendant was awarded $2500 in counsel fees for her costs incurred in opposition to the motion.
On Appeal, plaintiff contends that he should not be obligated for Ryan and Zachary’s college expenses because he did not agree to their choice of schools, and that the Family Part judge misapplied the Newburgh factors.
It is established that a Family Part judge exercises “substantial discretion” in determining parents’ contribution to college expenses. Avelino-Catabran v. Catabran, 445 N.J. Super. 574, 588 (App. Div. 2016) (quotinig Gotlib v. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super.295, 308 (App. Div. 2008)). However, there is no deference to a decision that is “manifestly unreasonable, [or] arbitrary . . .” J.B. v. W.B., 215 N.J. 305, 326 (2013), or that “ignores applicable standards.” Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. At 309.
The court in this case looked towards the PSA to determine plaintiff’s obligations in this case. The parties’ PSA did not condition a parent’s agreement to the child’s choice of college to the contribution towards college costs. Judge Isenhour found that both parties expected and encouraged their children to attend college. Plaintiff had paid for the older two sons’ education and agreed in the PSA to assume responsibility for repaying loans procured for their tuition and college related costs. Judge Isenhour found Ryan and Zachary were attending “schools suitable for their educational goals.” He also noted that both were performing well academically. The court discerned no merit in plaintiff’s argument that because he did not agree to the sons’ choice of college he is absolved of any contribution towards their costs for their education. Additionally, Judge Isenhour made extensive factual findings after a two-day plenary hearing and applied those facts to the twelve factors outlined in Newburgh.
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