JengaOn June 12, 2018, the Court of Appeals in a 5-2 decision, affirmed the ruling discussed below.

It is common in agreements, and often the case in judicial decisions, for the parent paying periodic child support to receive a credit against those payments for college room and board expenses paid by that parent. May parties agree that the credit exceed the amount allocated by the parties to the support of the particular child attending college? No, (probably) said the Appellate Division, First Department, in its April 6, 2017 decision in Keller-Goldman v. Goldman.

The parties entered into a Stipulation of Settlement and Agreement that resolved all issues surrounding their separation. As may be relevant to the court’s determination, although the parties had four unemancipated children, the agreement only provided for support for the three children for whom the wife was deemed the custodial parent (the parties were to share equal time with these three). The husband retained custody of the fourth child, but agreed to receive no support for him from the mother. The opinion noted that had the parties not negotiated the issue of child support, the mother stood to collect $5,000 per month in child support payments, pursuant to the Child Support Standards Act, a fact acknowledged by the agreement. Instead, she agreed to monthly child support payments of $2,500.

Paragraph 10.3 of the parties’ agreement provided for a graduated reduction in the father’s child support payments upon the emancipation of each of the three children. Upon the first emancipation his monthly payment would be reduced by $350 to $2,150 per month; and upon the second emancipation the payment would be reduced to $1,462 per month.

The agreement provide for a room and board credit at paragraph 10.4, immediately following the support reduction schedule:

During the period in which a Child is attending a college and residing away from the residences of the parties and [the father] is contributing towards the room and board expenses of that Child, [the father] shall be entitled to a credit against his child support obligations in an amount equal to the amount [the father] is paying for that Child’s room and board. The credit shall be allocated in equal monthly installments against [the father’s] child support payments.

Continue Reading Uncapped Room and Board Credit Violates Public Policy

College Fund 3Should a court reinterpret a divorce settlement agreement in light of New York’s public policy? It is one thing to void a contract provision as violative of that policy. It’s another to pretend that the contract was intended to be consistent with that policy.

Take, Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger’s recent decision in Luken v. Luken. There, the parties’ June, 2014 separation agreement provided that the couple would jointly finance the college education for their sons. At the time of the agreement the older son had completed his first year of college; the younger son was in high school. The husband was to pay 70 percent of the college cost, the wife the remaining 30 percent, up to a combined cap of $42,000. The agreement also gave the husband a college expense credit against his child support obligation:

The father shall be entitled to receive a credit against his child support for payments for college educational expenses as set forth herein.

The agreement had obligated the father to pay child support of $33,996 annually for his two sons. The amount was calculated using the $141,000 C.S.S.A. “cap,” even though the couple’s combined family income substantially exceeded that amount (the wife estimated the husband’s income at $600,000).

Continue Reading Crediting Child Support With Payments for College Expenses

What is a “mandatory” college expense to be shared by the parents?

In its January 15, 2014 decision in Shaughnessy v. Cox, the Second Department upheld the order of Nassau County Family Court Judge Robin M. Kent (which in turn upheld the determination of Support Magistrate Neil Miller) directing the father to pay 50% of the college expenses of the parties’ children regardless of their emancipation. The parties’ stipulation of settlement of their divorce action so provided. Moreover, the father’s obligation included the repayment of expenses which were paid from the proceeds of student loans.

However, Magistrate Miller had required the father to pay those expenses “upon the mother’s presentation of proper documentation directly to him . . . .” This, the Second Department held was error. Rather, the documentation should be provided by the mother first to the Family Court. The Court would determine whether the expenses were mandatory and, therefore, payable by the father pursuant to the parties’ agreement.

Setting up a situation in which parties are required to go, in the first instance, to a court to determine whether a college expense is “mandatory,” seems like extra work is being created. Here, it is not explained why the mother did not present proper documentation of expenses prior to Magistrate Miller making his ruling. Alternatively, the appellate court could have set up a procedure by which only if the father disputed the mandatory nature of expenses claimed by the mother would further Family Court proceedings be necessary.

Once again, the controversy results from the failure of an agreement to properly set forth the categories of college expenses to be shared. Apparently this agreement only specified “mandatory” expenses.

Continue Reading Ambiguous Agreements to Pay for Children's College Expenses

How.jpgIn its November 20, 2012 decision in Kang v. Kim, the First Department affirmed what appears to be an unwarranted interpretation of a divorce settlement marital residence buyout provision. In doing so, the appellate court yielded to the construction of the provision used by the “trier of fact” to resolve the ex=wife’s post-divorce motion to enforce the parties’ property settlement agreement.

That agreement gave the ex-wife the right to purchase the husband’s interest in the marital residence, a cooperative apartment. The clause provided:

If the parties are unable to agree as to the terms for such purchase within 30 days of the day that the Wife gave notice to the Husband then the value of the Husband’s interest (the ‘buy-out price’) shall be one half of the value of the apartment as determined by a Real Estate Appraisers [sic ] agreed to by the parties less the outstanding amount owed upon the First Mortgage.

The wife claimed that the provision was unambiguous. The price (“P”) she was to receive was one half of the value of the apartment (“V”) less the entire outstanding mortgage (“M”). The entirety of the mortgage was to be subtracted from the ex-husband’s half-share of the gross value.

Recalling math class from, oh, so many years ago, the wife successfully argued:

P = (V/2) – M

The husband had argued that the buyout price was half the value of the apartment less the wife’s one-half share of the outstanding amount of the mortgage. Mathematically, the husband argued:

P = V/2 – M/2

Thus, the husband asserted that the buyout price was one half of the equity in the apartment. This might also be written:

P = (V-M)/2

The First Department noted that the lower court, New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper, found the provision “unambiguous.”

However, the First Department disagreed on the issue of ambiguity, nevertheless deferring to the construction used by the lower court. The appellate court found that:

upon examination of the settlement agreement in its entirety, and considering the relation of the parties and the circumstances under which it was executed, the agreement is ambiguous because the provision is reasonably susceptible of more than one interpretation.

Indeed, the First Department noted, the settlement agreement also provided that all marital property was to be divided 50/50 and that if the premises were sold to a third party, the “net proceeds of sale” were to be divided equally.

Continue Reading Drafting Formulas in Divorce Stipulations of Settlement: Use Examples and Math Concepts