In the best scenarios, kids of divorce continue to have a close relationship with both of their parents. That is sadly not always the case. While there are different reasons for a child becoming estranged from a parent, sometimes the cause is what has been referred to as “Parental Alienation.”
There was a recent court case (as of the writing of this blog) that specifically addressed whether a parent has to pay for the college expenses, even though it’s already agreed to in the divorce settlement, where the child has become estranged from the parent.
In the unpublished decision, Weinman v. Weinman, Docket No. A-4617-17T4, May 12, 2020, the Court held that even though the parties had an agreement to share the cost of college for the children, the parental alienation asserted by the mother, obviated the father’s obligation to contribute to the children’s college expenses. The Appellate Court stated:
"A child's decision to seriously pursue a college education alone does not create the required dependency allowing him or her to be un-emancipated. . . .[F]acts matter, and the judge must fully analyze all circumstances that separated [the child] from [his or] her parents and their homes." Ricci, 448 N.J. Super. At 577-78. Judge Walsh's finding that the children were estranged from plaintiff, wanted no relationship with him, let alone allowed him to meaningfully participate in the college selection process as the parties had agreed during the divorce, is amply supported by the substantial, credible evidence in the record.
In situations where a child seeks neither a relationship, nor guidance from a parent, and instead looks to a parent only as a source of funds, that parent is relieved of the obligation to fund the child's college education. See Moss v. Nedas, 289 N.J. Super. 352, 356 (App. Div. 1996) (noting a parent cannot be viewed as a "wallet" and deprived of involvement in the college decision making process). We disagree that the parties' prior agreement to share the college obligation irrevocably bound the judge. Id. at page 19."
In the case before us, the mother systematically alienated the children from their father from the time they were infants. Over the years, there was a therapeutic mediator and a reunification therapist involved in the case and psychological evaluations of the parents were conducted. It was clear from the expert reports and evidence presented, the children wanted nothing to do with their father even after the father tried time and again to establish a relationship with his children.
The trial court “emancipated the children as of their eighteenth birthdays, finding their conduct placed them beyond plaintiff's sphere of influence. As a result, the judge concluded plaintiff should not have any obligation to pay for their college educations.” Weinman at 16.
The Appellate Court noted use of the case by the trial court and also agreed with the trial court’s decision to not enforce the parties’ agreement quoting Moss v. Nedas, 289 N.J. Super. 352 (App. Div. 1996).
"Although the court will enforce an agreement to the extent it is just and equitable, when it appears no longer fair to do so, the court is not bound by the agreement or its prior orders…Thus “if circumstances have changed in such a way that requiring [a party] to pay for college would no longer be equitable and fair, the court also remains free to alter the prior agreement. [Moss, 289 N.J. Super. at 359-60 (quoting Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 161 n.12 (1983)).]"
The take-away from this case is divorced parents paying for college is not an absolute. If the paying parent is not involved in the child’s life, whether due to parent alienation or the actions of the child, he or she may not be required to contribute to the child’s college education, regardless of what the Marital Settlement Agreement states.
If college contributions are an issue for you, the experienced mediators at New Jersey Divorce Solutions are available to discuss your options. Please schedule your Client Vision Meeting here.