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

It appears that the tremendous burden placed on the Appellate Division, Second Department, to work through its caseload has often led to opinions which leave you wanting to know a little more of the facts so you can put the case into perspective.

Take the the Second Department’s May 31, 2017 decision in Fiore v. Fiore, where the lower court’s opinion was modified to increase a father’s college obligation and which determined summer camp to be the equivalent of child care.

After nine years of marriage and one child, the parties settled their divorce action by an amended agreement that was incorporated into their 2000 Judgment of Divorce. Included among the settlement’s provisions were that the father would pay $12,289 annually for basic child support; that the parents would each pay their pro rata share of unreimbursed medical expenses; and that the father would pay 58% of the cost of day care.

In 2014, the mother moved for upward modification of basic child support, and other child support-related relief, including contribution toward the child’s summer camp and college expenses. Supreme Court, Nassau County Justice Julianne T. Capetola denied the upward modification, denied summer camp expenses, and limited the father’s obligation to pay college expenses to $5,000 per semester.

On appeal, the Second Department upheld the denial of an increase in the basic child support obligation. The mother had failed to meet her burden of proving that there had been a substantial, unanticipated, and unreasonable change in circumstances resulting in a concomitant need, or that the settlement was not fair and equitable when entered into. This was the required burden as the amended stipulation of settlement was entered prior to the effective date of the 2010 amendments to Domestic Relations Law §236(B)(9)(b)(2), when the burden was lessened.

Continue Reading Appellate Court Increases College and Child Care Expense Obligations

Whether by agreement or court decree, it is common for divorced parents to be obligated to contributed to their child’s college education tuition, room and board expenses. How is that obligation computed when a child receives financial aid?

Cases have held that scholarships, grants and aid for which the student has no repayment responsibility are to be subtracted before computing the parents’ obligations. First, the total cost of attending college should be calculated. Next, a court should determine the percentage of that total cost which is covered by financial aid. That percentage is applied to the separate tuition and room and board portions of the total expense. Finally, the parents’ shares of each portion, after deducting the pro rata financial aid, is to be calculated based upon each parent’s share of of responsibility.

For example, if tuition is $12,000 and room and board is $8,000, totaling $20,000, and financial aid is $15,000, or 75% of the total college cost, the net tuition after pro rata financial aid would be $3,000. The father’s pro rata tuition obligation should then be applied to that amount to determine his contribution to tuition. Matter of Yorke v. Yorke (2011).

The question remains what forms of financial aid get subtracted. In Yorke, the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that Stafford loans should not have been subtracted. Stafford loans (Direct Subsidized Loans) are federal student loans borrowed through the Direct Loans program that offer undergraduate students a low, fixed interest rate and flexible repayment terms.

In determining the parents’ respective obligations towards the cost of college, a court should not take into account any college loans for which the student is responsible. Therefore, any loans for which the child is responsible should not have been deducted from the college costs prior to determining the father’s pro rata share of those costs. As held in the Second Department’s decision in Matter of Rashidi v. Rashidi, (2013):

A parent’s share of college expenses for a child should be based on the total cost of tuition, room and board, college fees, and books and miscellaneous expenses as estimated by the university attended by the child, less only the sum of all nonrepayable scholarships, grants, and work-study payments or credits.

In its June 7, 2017 decision in Mons Pinto v. Pinto, the Second Department made the waters a little murkier when holding that Supreme Court, Westchester County Justice Janet C. Malone correctly determined a parent’s share of the children’s college expenses, as well as the credit towards his basic child support obligation to which he was entitled, based on “the total aggregate cost of tuition and room and board, less the sum of scholarships, grants, and federal subsidized loans.”

The appellate court did not indicate whether the issue of student loans was, in fact, involved in the case. However, the language used by the court appears to be a departure from prior decisions.

Annette G. Hasapidis, of South Salem, NY, represented the father. Lawrence B. LaRaus, Buonamici & LaRaus, LLP, of White Plains, represented the mother.

OverstuffedIn contrast to its decision in Zaratzian, the subject of yesterday’s blog post, the Second Department, in Eagar v. Suchan, held the same day that a father was entitled to receive child support from a mother after their two children moved in with him.

In Eagar, the parties’ 1999 Settlement Agreement which was incorporated, but not merged into their judgment of divorce, contained separate provisions for child support and the payment of college expenses for the children. At the time, the then 7- and 5-year old sons of the parties lived with their mother.

After the parties’ two children began to reside with the father, he petitioned to terminate his child support obligation.

After a hearing, Suffolk County Support Magistrate (and former Judge) Barbara Lynaugh granted the father’s petition. She determined that the parties’ older child, then 21, was emancipated, and directed the mother to pay child support to the father for the parties’ younger child, then 19, in the sum of $344 per week. Family Court Judge Martha L. Luft denied the mother’s objections to the ruling.

The Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed. It held that Magistrate Lynaugh properly exercised her discretion when applying the Child Support Standards Act formula percentage to the combined parental income in excess of the statutory cap. “Here, the Support Magistrate properly articulated her reasons for applying the statutory percentages to parental income over the statutory cap, and her determination was not an improvident exercise of discretion.” It appears that the mother’s C.S.S.A.-adjusted annual income was approximately $105,000.00, which (applying the 17% formula) resulted in a $344.00 per week award.

The appellate court did not discuss the language of the parties’ Stipulation of Settlement, or why that language allowed for an affirmative award to the father.

Continue Reading “I’m Moving In With Daddy”: The Child Support Perspective (Part II)

Education savingsA parent who pays all or some portion of a child’s college room and board expenses is often entitled to a credit against that parent’s base child support obligation. The Appellate Division, Second Department, in its May 6, 2015 decision in Sawin v. Sawin, appears to hold that such credits may only be taken only against the base child support obligation for the child attending college and then only for the months that the child is away at school.

In Sawin, the parties were married in 1988 and had three children.  During the marriage, the husband worked as a firefighter, and in 2011, he earned approximately $122,500. The wife stopped working full-time after the birth of the parties’ second child in 1994. In 2004, she began working part-time as a real estate agent, earning approximately $15,000 in 2010 and $23,000 in 2011.

In December 2010, the wife commenced this matrimonial action seeking, among other things, child support, maintenance, and equitable distribution. At the time of trial in February 2012, the parties’ oldest child was in college and resided on campus during the school year.

The Second Department noted that among other rulings Putnam County Supreme Court former Justice Francis A. Nicolai properly directed the husband to pay a proportionate share of the children’s college expenses as part of the child support award. However, the appellate court noted that the husband was entitled to a credit for at least some portion of the college room and board expenses he paid.

The child support award should have included a provision either directing that, when a child is living away from home while attending college, the [husband’s] monthly child support obligation shall be reduced, or awarding the [husband] a credit against his child support obligation for any amounts that he contributes toward college room and board expenses for that child during those months.

Accordingly, the Second Department remitted the issue for a determination of the husband’s child support obligation “for any time periods that one or more of the parties’ children are living away from home at college.”

Comment: The rule, although logical, may be both difficult to apply and inequitable. For example, what happens in December and January when a child is home half the time for intersession or the winter recess. Do we start having to count the days?

No. The entirety of the room and board expense gets spread over the total number of days the child is away at school. One way or the other, a potential credit should be available for the entire expense.

The bigger problem is capping the credit at the total base child support obligation attributable to the child attending college. Take this family with three children. The child support formula would use 29% of parental income to determine that base obligation. After one of the children is emancipated, 25% is the formula percentage.

Does that mean that only 4% of parental income is being used to support the eldest child? No. 29% is being used to support all three children. The credit should be available against one third of the base obligation.

Of course, not every penny of the support for the child in college is earmarked for room and board at school. The overhead expenses of the home must still be paid. There are also expenses for clothing, vacations, etc.

All that being said, the time and cost of proving the equities in a case would outweigh the credit. A rule is necessary.

Yesterday’s blog post discuss the maintenance and basic child support awards. Tomorrow’s post will discuss giving credits to the wife for debts she incurred after the divorce action was commenced.

Jason A. Advocate, of Advocate & Lichtenstein, LLP (John H. Hersh, former counsel on the brief), of Manhattan, represented the husband. Sarah R. Scigliano, of Stephen M. Santoro, Sr., P.C., of Carmel, represented the wife.

Where a divorce settlement agreement contains a SUNY cap on the parents’ obligations to contribute to college expenses, do you subtract financial aid first from the SUNY cap, or first from the total actual costs of the child who chose to attend a private college? Do you include loans in the “financial aid” formula?

In its February 20, 2014 decision in Apjohn v. Lubinski, the Third Department decided to benefit the child.

The parties’ 1994 separation agreement contained a SUNY cap provision limiting the obligations of these parents to contribute to their then 1-year-old son’s college education. Each parent’s obligation would be limited to half of the cost of tuition, room and board at a college or university that is part of the State University of New York.

The agreement further provided that the son must apply to “the said college or university” for all possible grants, scholarships and financial aid before either party would be obliged to pay any college costs. Here, the son applied for and obtained financial aid from the private college where he enrolled in September 2011. the son also received an outside scholarship.

Refusing to make any contribution, the father contended that the agreement required the son to apply to a SUNY institution for financial aid. As the son did not do so (he applied to his private college), the father argued he had no obligation to contribute anything.

The Third Department resolved the ambiguity as to whether the requirement to apply to “the said college or university” for financial aid referred to a SUNY institution or to the college attended by the son, by noting that the agreement did not require the son to attend or apply for admission at a SUNY school. (The father also did not show that it was  possible to apply to a SUNY institution for financial aid without also applying for admission.)

Continue Reading Applying the Ambiguous SUNY-Capped Contribution-to-College Clause

College Fund 3.jpgIt is not uncommon for divorce settlement agreements to limit a parent’s contribution to a child’s college education to a portion of the expense to attend a campus within the State University of New York system. This is known as the “SUNY cap.”

A scholarly October, 2011 decision of New York County Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper tackled head-on the assumption that a court would not impose on a parent a share of the expenses of a private college education.

Pamela T. v. Marc B., involved the parents of 16- and 18-year old sons. The older boy, a child with “moderate emotional difficulty,” was a freshman at Syracuse University intending to study computer engineering and computer graphics. He was a graduate of a selective public Manhattan high school. The decision resolved the father’s objection to paying more than his share of a SUNY education.

A SUNY education would cost approximately $18,000 per year. Syracuse University, on the other hand, costs three times that amount, some $53,000 per year.

Both parents were lawyers, with private college and law school backgrounds. Each parent earned just over $100,000 per year. The mother had some $1,230,000 in savings and retirement accounts; the father $580,000.

Justice Cooper directed the father to bear 40% of the costs of that Syracuse University education. There is no SUNY cap mandated by New York law. The thrust of Justice Cooper’s decision was that:

the SUNY cap–to the extent that it stands for the proposition that before a parent can be compelled to contribute towards the cost of a private college there must be a showing that a child cannot receive an adequate education at a state college–is a doctrine that in many cases is harmful to the children of divorced parents, acts to discriminate against them, and is largely unworkable.

Continue Reading Divorced Parents may be Liable to Provide Children with a Private College Education