For many parents, the financial support they provide to their children does not end after their children graduate from high school. For divorcing parents in particular, the payment of their children’s future college expenses is often a specific part of their Marital Settlement Agreement. In New Jersey, college costs are generally viewed by the Court as an extension of the parent’s child support obligation. In Pennsylvania, the payment of college expenses is not required by the Court, but many parents still choose to include a provision in their agreement which addresses what proportion each party will contribute to the child’s future college costs.
Consequently, many parents end up with a divorce agreement that addresses college expenses many years before the child is ready to enter college. It is not uncommon for a parent/child relationship to become strained or dissolve entirely by the time the child is college age. This creates a particular challenge for a parent who is required by his/her Property Settlement Agreement to contribute to the child’s college expenses, but has little to no involvement in the child’s academic life. Without having access to a child’s college records, the parent has no way to verify that the child is actually enrolled as a fulltime student or to confirm how the child is performing in his/her classes.
To further complicate matters, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) grants college students over the age of eighteen the right to privacy with regard to their educational records. A parent could therefore be obligated to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their child’s education, only to be denied access to any information regarding the child’s performance in college.
This particular scenario played out in the New Jersey Superior Court case of Van Brunt v. Van Brunt. 419 N.J. Super 327 (Ch. Div. 2010). In that case, the student’s father was obligated to support his daughter until she was emancipated. The parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement specified that emancipation would occur after the completion of four academic years of college. The Agreement did not, however, address the father’s access to his daughter’s college records, which she refused to provide to him. The Court in Van Brunt found in favor of the student’s father, holding that a “parent who is required to pay child support and college tuition for an over-eighteen child has a right to verify the child’s ongoing status and performance as a full-time student.” Id. at 333. If the college-aged student refused to provide such documentation to the party contributing to the college costs, the Court held that the student “should not be permitted to simultaneously assert an entitlement to ongoing mandatory child support and/or college contribution from [the parent].” Id. at 334.
As to the type of documentation the college student must provide, the Court in Van Brunt defined this documentation to include proof of enrollment, course credits, and report cards. The Court even went so far as to hold that the payee (the parent receiving the child support payments) was equally responsible for providing this documentation. The Court reasoned that the party receiving the support “has a reciprocal ongoing duty to provide information to [the payor] concerning [the child’s] fulltime collegiate status.” Id.
While the case law supports a parent’s right to a student’s college information, it does not guarantee that this information will be easily accessible to the parent. The best way to minimize future conflict over access to this information is to include language in a Property Settlement Agreement which specifically grants both parties the right to access the student’s college grades, courses, and proof of enrollment, and which also defines when and how this information shall be conveyed from the child or payee to the payor.