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.

Continue Reading Support When the Child Graduates College in Three Years

The fact that a father set his daughter up with her own apartment when not away at college could not be used by the father as a basis to discontinue making child support payments to the mother.

Such was the holding in Trepel v. Trepel, a July 12, 2013 decision New York County Supreme Court Justice Lori S. Sattler.

At its heart, this decision was based upon the language of the parties’ surviving divorce stipulation of settlement. Under that stipulation, emancipation for child support purposes did include a change of full-time residence away from the Mother. Under the stipulation,  emancipation  included:

[The daughter’s] residing full-time away from the home of the Mother upon and after her 18th birthday, except that residence at boarding school, college or graduate school, or temporarily during summer camp or other organized summer program, shall not be deemed an Emancipation. The period, if any, from [the daughter’s] return to residence in the home of the Mother until the earliest of any other emancipation event shall be deemed a period prior to Emancipation for all purposes under this Agreement.

The father claimed that his daughter, who turned 18 in April, 2012, was emancipated under this clause as of November, 2012.

On an application by the mother to compel the father to continue paying child support, the father submitted his daughter’s affidavit. According to the daughter, in October, 2012 the mother had told her that she was going to move to Philadelphia to live with her boyfriend, which the mother did in November, 2012. The father then found an apartment for his daughter, sending her pictures of it while away at school at Emory College in Atlanta. The daughter signed a lease in November, 2012 and moved in over Christmas break from school after she and her father purchased furniture and household supplies.Continue Reading Child Support Continues: Full-Time College Student With Own Apartment When Not At School Does Not Reside "Full-Time Away From the Home of the Mother"

Peter_Pan_by_nk_title.pngAt age 18, the child becomes an adult, legally beyond the reach of parental decisions. However, not until age 21 does the legal obligation to support that child come to an end (unless extended by agreement).

A parent’s obligation to support may end (or be suspended) before that, as when a child marries, enters the armed forces, or becomes economically independent.  However, as a practical matter as long as the child remains under a parent’s roof, economic independence may not be found.

Take the June 28, 2011 of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Smith v. Smith. There, the Court affirmed Suffolk County Family Court Richard Hoffman ‘s denial of a father’s objections to the order of Support Magistrate (and Pace Law School Professor) Cheryl Joseph-Cherry which awarded $200.00 per month child support to the wife/mother.

The parties’ son worked full-time. He paid for his own car insurance and cell phone.  However, the appeallate court found it persuasive that the mother still paid for his food, shelter, clothing, and health and dental insurance.

The decision does not provide greater detail. We don’t know what the child “does” or how much the child earns. Presumably, if the child is in school, we would have been told.

However, the Court did place primary reliance upon the First Department’s 2009 decision in Matter of Thomas B. v Lydia D. That decision, itself placed heavy reliance upon the Second Department’s decision in Matter of Fortunato v. Fortunato, 242 A.D.2d 720, 662 N.Y.S.2d 570 (1997). In Fortunato, the child was found to be emancipated because he was:

working an average of 30 to 35 hours per week … [,] he used his earnings to meet all of his personal expenses, including car insurance payments and telephone charges, and … he voluntarily contributed modest sums to his mother for room and board. Moreover, the son was not attending school, and had no plans to save money for tuition or return to college in the immediate future.Continue Reading Child's Economic Independence, Not Full-Time Employment, Signals End of Support Obligation