Focus, Higher Education, and Law

Judges hold N.J. parents responsible for college tuition

Divorced parents in Michigan are advised to be careful what they sign up for.

February 6, 2015
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In December, a young woman from New Jersey successfully won her lawsuit against her parents over her college tuition bill. A New Jersey judge ruled Caitlyn Ricci’s parents, from whom she is estranged, must pay $16,000 worth of college expenses.

This is the second case to gain attention involving someone 18 or older suing their parents over education-related expenses in the past two years. Both cases were from New Jersey and involved young women who claimed to have been kicked out of their parents’ home, and parents who said their daughters had left home voluntarily.

With college education costs mounting, it’s no wonder the cases have caught the attention of parents across the country.

According to Warner Norcross attorney Richard Roane, a Michigan law — the Michigan Age of Majority Act — makes it unlikely an adult-aged child would be able to successfully sue his or her parents for college tuition and related costs in the state.

On the other hand, Roane said there are circumstances where a parent is under a contractual obligation to pay: Divorced parents, listen up.

“I don’t think a judge, based on the Age of Majority Act, would recognize that the parents have a legal obligation to provide that post-majority support,” Roane said. “If parents have gone through a divorce and there is a court order, and part of the negotiated settlement was that either one or both parents will contribute in some fashion to college expenses — that becomes a contractual obligation, which the divorce judge will then enforce.”

Roane said an obligation to pay for college costs cannot be forced on a parent, but a parent can agree in the divorce settlement to pay.

“There is either a consent judgment where they agree to everything in the judgment, or they have a trial and the judge imposes a judgment on them,” Roane explained. “The judge can’t impose the obligation on the parent over their objection.”

Roane said a lot of times in a consent judgment a parent who feels strongly about the importance of education will agree to pay for college expenses, and, in doing so, may unwittingly create a bad situation for himself or herself down the road.

Roane said early in his career he had a client who had agreed in his divorce settlement to pay for his son’s college. The father and son became estranged for several years and, suddenly, the father received a bill for $80,000 worth of college bills.

“What had happened was, in the judgment the father agreed to pay the college expenses — that is all it said,” Roane explained. “Because the language was so vague and broad, the kid sent him a bill that included tuition, transportation to and from college, spring break vacation bills, including hotels and airline tickets, and a stack of receipts from the bookstore.”

Roane said some of the receipts clearly had been picked up off the ground outside of the bookstore and had not originated from the son’s purchases.

“The judge said, ‘The father agreed in the judgment to pay the college expenses; it was vague and broadly drawn, so I am going to enforce the agreement and the father has to pay the money,’” Roane said.

Roane advises clients either not to put such an agreement in writing and therefore not create a contractual obligation to pay for his or her child’s future education, or to be very specific about what expenses he or she will cover.

“If you feel you have an obligation, you can have a verbal commitment to your child to pay for the expenses. If you insist on having it in writing, make sure its specific,” Roane said.

He said a parent should specify if the expenses include both in-state or out-of-state tuition, room and board, and whether expenses are limited to an undergraduate degree or also include graduate school or other post-graduate work. He also recommends putting an age cap on the commitment.

“If there is something that is excluded, exclude it,” he advised. For instance, bar tabs, a limit on grocery or other living expenses, or vacations.

“Be careful what you are signing up for,” he said.

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