College Fund 2.jpg“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Bill Clinton, August 17, 1998

“What does “means” mean?” Justice Richard A. Dollinger, June 22, 2012

By statute, a court may direct a parent to contribute to a child’s education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement of the parties. Under the Child Support Standards Act (D.R.L. 240[1-b][c][7] and F.C.A. 413[c][7]) the court may award educational expenses:

Where the court determines, having regard for the circumstances of the case and of the respective parties and in the best interests of the child, and as justice requires, that the present or future provision of post-secondary, private, special, or enriched education for the child is appropriate.

In my May 9, 2012 blog, I discussed the April 24, 2012 decision in Tishman v. Bogatin, in which the Appellate Division, First Department, held that a parent’s contribution to a child’s college education would not necessarily be limited to a portion of the expense to attend a campus within the State University of New York system: the “SUNY cap.” In making a decision, there is no burden placed on a parent to show that the child’s needs cannot be met adequately at a SUNY college. “Whether to impose a SUNY cap is to be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the parties’ means and the child’s educational needs.”

In its July 25, 2012 decision in Lynn v Kroenung, the Second Department reaffirmed that unlike the obligation to provide support for a child’s basic needs, support for a child’s college education is not mandatory. Instead, absent a voluntary agreement, whether a parent is obligated to contribute to a child’s college education is “dependent upon the exercise of the court’s discretion, and an award will be made only “as justice requires.”

In L.L. v. R.L., Monroe County Supreme Court Justice Richard A. Dollinger was compelled to determine what “means” meant in a couple’s separation agreement. That agreement provided that the parents would finance the children’s college education “according to their respective means at the time the child attends college, after grants and scholarships have been taken into consideration.”

In 2011, the parties’ oldest son applied, was accepted, and enrolled at Penn State (Harrisburg). Before he left for school, the mother moved for an allocation of the college expenses. In a prior decision, Justice Dollinger reserved this issue. When the couple’s second son recently applied to Hofstra (stated cost $33,000 annually), the mother sought an allocation of those expenses as well.

Justice Dollinger clarified the issue he would be deciding:

This Court is not deciding what the parents should contribute to their children’s college education expenses. The agreement clearly indicates that both parents would contribute something if they had the means to do so. The only issues before the court are questions of contract interpretation and contractual rights: what the parents agreed they would contribute, what obligation may be enforced against either parent under the agreement, and whether either party has, to date, breached their obligations thereunder.

Continue Reading The Divorced Parent's Obligation to Pay for College: It Depends What "Means" Means