female graduate with her fatherWhen a divorce settlement contemplates paying child support throughout four years of college, what happens when the child graduates in three?

The statutory obligation to support a child ends at the child’s 21st birthday. It is common with divorce settlements to extend child support beyond the 21st birthday if the child is continuing to attend college on a full-time basis. However, defining when the periodic support obligation will end is not always made clear.

Take the March 30, 2016 decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Fleming v. Fleming. The parties’ divorce stipulation of settlement required the father to pay periodic child support until the children reached the age of 21, or the completion of “four (4) academic years of college,” whichever occurred last, but in no event beyond the school year of the child’s 23rd birthday.

However, the parties’ daughter graduated from college after only three years of study, one month after her 21st birthday. The father stopped paying child support. The daughter went on to graduate school.

The mother moved to enforce the stipulation’s obligation for the father to pay periodic child support. She asserted that the stipulation required the father to continue paying child support during their daughter’s first year of graduate school. Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Stephen M. Behar granted the mother’s motion, finding that the child had completed only three academic years of college. Justice Behar directed the father to continue paying child support until the child completed “four (4) full academic years of college, or until the child’s 23rd birthday, whichever occurs first.”

The Second Department reversed.

When interpreting a contract, such as a separation agreement, the court should arrive at a construction that will give fair meaning to all of the language employed by the parties to reach a practical interpretation of the expressions of the parties so that their reasonable expectations will be realized.

Here, Second Department held, the fair meaning of the language “four (4) academic years of college,” employed by the parties in their stipulation of settlement, expressed their intent to describe a four-year undergraduate course of study leading to a bachelor’s degree. There was no evidence in the record to suggest that the parties intended this language to mean graduate school. The fact that the child was able to graduate college in three years instead of four did not change the plain meaning of the language of the parties’ stipulation, or alter their reasonable expectations as to the intent of its terms. The father’s child support obligation ended upon the daughter’s college graduation.

Comment: When drafting a divorce stipulation of settlement, when should the periodic child support obligation end? Suppose the child takes a year off after high school or during college? What if the child passes only 2 courses in a semester, or has a 2.0 grade point average in a semester or cumulatively? What is an academic year; is it a unit of time, or credits, or money? Does it include summers? Suppose it takes 5 calendar years to complete 4 academic years? In the case above, suppose the child completed two years of college and then simply stopped?

This is one of the clauses that requires the lawyer and client to work together, with the client questioning like the annoying (or wonderful) 3-year old: what if . . . .; what if . . . .; what if . . . .? This is one of those areas where you discuss the story of your friend’s neighbor’s cousin whose son graduated high school, went to community college for two years; took a year off; and then returned to college full-time while he held a full-time job at nights and on weekends.

Robert L. Ryan, Jr., of Helwig, Henderson, Ryan, LaMagna & Spinola, LLP, of Carle Place, represented the father.