Helwig Henderson Ryan LaMagna & Spinola LLP

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.


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