A recent decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, appears to unduly expand the basis upon which a parent may be obligated to contribute to the college education expenses of a child beyond age 21.
Generally, a parent’s obligation to support a child terminates when the child reaches age 21. That general rule, of course, may be varied by the parents themselves by agreement.
Indeed, it is quite common to extend by agreement a parent’s support obligation, beyond the date on which a child turns 21, in a written separation agreement or divorce action stipulation of settlement, whether written or entered in open court. Such agreements often have an “emancipation” clause which defines the circumstances under which a child will be deemed emancipated for the purposes of the parent’s support obligation to a time either before or after child reaches age 21. Again, it is common to delay emancipation until the child turns 22 or thereafter, if the child is enrolled on a full-time basis in an accredited college, university or other post-high school educational program. If properly entered, such agreements are routinely incorporated into divorce judgments or other support orders. They are enforceable in both Supreme and Family Courts.
In its January, 2012 decision in Shapiro v. Shapiro, the Third Department affirmed a divorce judgment which, in part, obligated a father to contribute his pro rata share of college expenses until each child reaches the age of 22.
The court acknowledged that absent an agreement extending the obligation, a parent is not legally obligated to pay college costs for a child that has reached the age of 21. However, the court found that such an agreement could be inferred from statements which did not expressly exclude post-21 expenses from a statement agreeing to contribute to college. The sole basis of the Third Department’s decision was as follows:
Plaintiff acknowledged in his testimony that he had, in fact, agreed to pay part of the children’s college education costs, there was no indication that he intended to limit his payments to the children’s first three years in college, and proof at trial established that funds had been previously set up to assist in such costs. Under these circumstances, it was not error for Supreme Court to direct plaintiff to pay a portion of the children’s college costs until they reach the age of 22.