For divided families, it is never too early to talk about Summer Camp costs

Among the schoolchildren, conversations about summer vacation are now beginning. They are happy ones, all about endless days, playing outside and… Parents and especially working ones,view the approach of summer with a mixture of joy and dread as they try to figure out what to do with the children during the summer break. Gone are the days of sending the kids to the grandparents because, the grandparents are out working too or, with the increasing mobility of families, they live too far. The only option left to most parents is summer camps. Chief among many parents concern is the cost of these camps.

That concern is even more germane when parents are either divorced, or in the process of divorce, are unmarried and are raising the children separately. The cost of summer camp is not insignificant. The weekly fee will range from $150 to over $400. Sometimes this fee will not include before and after care which is essential for working parents. It is difficult for parents to make camp decisions particularly in these tough economic climate especially for parents who are living separately and sharing custody of children and frequently courts are called on to make decisions on camp costs.

How do parents negotiate the costs of summer camp?

The summer camp discussion has to begin early for the parents living separately. Every effort must be made to arrive at a decision jointly. If impossible, an application to the court may be warranted. By starting this conversation, there will be time to go to court and potentially obtain an order compelling the non-cooperating parent to pay for camp costs.

 What does the Court consider in determining the payment of camp costs?

If the parents are divorced and have a property settlement agreement (PSA), the court will look to the agreement first. Hopefully, the PSA addressed the issue of summer camp expenses. Courts are very careful to uphold the terms of a PSA because the presumption is that this is what the parties wanted. Only in very rare cases will those terms be set aside. Generally many agreements will state that summer camp expenses will be divided equally (50/50) between the parents. A more carefully drafted agreement will also include that the payment will be made to the other parent on a predetermined date and that the summer camp decision will be made jointly and consent shall not be unreasonably held. As is the case with many divorce agreements, they are only as good as the parties agree to abide by them.

In the absence of a PSA, there is typically a custodial and non-custodial parent.  Usually, the custodial parent will be more involved in determining appropriate summer camps taking into consideration programs, distance to and from work and the cost. The best time for the Court to address the issue of summer camp expenses is before they have been incurred. At that time, it would be easy for a court to apportion these expenses equally or in proportion to each parent’s income. If the matter comes to the court as a request for reimbursement for those expenses, the result is rarely satisfactory to either parent.

The Court would first want to ascertain that a discussion was had between the parents prior to incurring the summer camp expenses. This is borne of the principle that parents should be making joint decisions with respect to the rearing of their children. If there was none, the parent that incurred the expense, the Court may decide not to compel payment from a parent who was not notified.

Is summer camp considered a child care expense?

The Court may determine that summer camp is child care for the summer recess and therefore a necessary expense for working parents. The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines assist Courts in determining parental financial obligations to their children. According to these guidelines, the child care expense is not factored into the initial support calculation and has to be added after it has been incurred. Additionally, the Court may look into whether summer camp costs should be treated as child care expenses for children old enough to be left home alone during the summer months.

Parents should be having discussions about summer camp expenses prior to incurring them. Parents raising children separately should aim for cooperation and civility in their communications because it is to be expected that these communications may be produced in Court as evidence.