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

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

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