September 01, 2014

Earlier this year, an 18-year-old New Jersey woman made national headlines when she sued her parents for child support and college costs. Although this case was eventually dropped, relieving the court of the onus of making a decision, courts across the country have dealt with the issue of requiring divorced parents to contribute to their adult children’s college expenses. This article will look at a few decisions.

WEBB v. SOWELL, 692 SE 2d 543 – SC Supreme Court

Facts of the Case: Timothy Webb and Janice Sowell were divorced in 1994. When the older of the parties’ two children turned 18 in 2005, Mr. Webb petitioned the trial court to reduce his monthly child support obligation based on the child’s emancipation. Ms. Sowell brought a counterclaim to require Mr. Webb to contribute to the child’s college expenses.

Trial Court Decision: Based on a previous South Carolina Supreme Court ruling in the case of Risinger v. Risinger (253 SE 2d 652 – SC: Supreme Court (1979)), the court determined that it was appropriate to require Mr. Webb to contribute to the child’s college expenses. The court also required the child to carry as much of the burden as he could through grants, scholarships, and earnings from summer and holiday work. The parents were ordered to equally share all reasonable expenses including tuition, books, room, board, spending money and other incidentals not covered by the child’s contribution.

Mr. Webb appealed the ruling, arguing that the trial court’s interpretation of Risinger violated the Equal Protection clause of the federal and state constitutions.

Supreme Court Decision: The Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Webb, finding no rational basis for permitting a family court to order a parent subject to a child support order to contribute to an emancipated child’s post-secondary education. The Court stated that the effect of the Risinger decision was that a court may order a parent subject to a support order at the time a child reaches age 18 to pay college expenses. However, there is no authority to require a parent not subject to a child support order to pay such expenses. Further, the Court found that there is no common law duty on any parents to pay an adult child’s post-secondary education.

Two of the justices wrote dissenting opinions, finding that it was appropriate to require a parent to contribute to an adult child’s post-secondary education expenses but limiting the amount of contribution to the parent’s prorata share of an education at a South Carolina public university or college.

MCLEOD v. STARNES, 723 SE 2d 198 – SC Supreme Court

Facts of the Case: Ms. McLeod and Mr. Starnes were divorced in 1993. Their oldest child enrolled in college in 2006 and, similar to the circumstances in Webb, Ms. McLeod filed a petition for college expenses in March 2007. Mr. Starnes filed a counterclaim denying that he should be required to pay any college expenses for the child. A temporary order was filed requiring Mr. Starnes to pay $400 per month toward the child’s college expense pending a final hearing.

Trial Court Decision: After a hearing in 2009, the trial court rescinded the temporary order and held that requiring Mr. Starnes to pay college expenses violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution, consistent with the Webb decision.

Ms. McLeod appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision: The Supreme Court reversed the trial court, effectively overturning Webb. In its decision, the court recognized that the State has a strong interest in ensuring the welfare of young citizens and that the court should seek to identify those children whose parent would otherwise have paid for their college education, but for the divorce, and provide them with that benefit.

PETERSEN v. PETERSEN, 932 NE 2d 1184 (2010) – IL Appellate Court

Facts of the Case: Janet Petersen and Kevin Petersen were divorced in 1999 at which time all three of their children were still minors. The parties’ judgment provided that the Court would reserve the issue of each party’s obligation to contribute to the college education of the children. In May 2007, Ms. Petersen filed a petition requesting contribution from Mr. Petersen toward the children’s college expenses. The oldest child attended Cornell University from 2002 through 2006; the middle child attended Wake Forest in 2004-2005 and then transferred to the University of Texas; the youngest was in his first year at California Polytechnic State University.

Trial Court Decision: After an evidentiary hearing in April 2008 to determine the income of the parties, the court ordered Mr. Petersen to pay 75% of the college expenses for the children, “past, present, and future.” The court found Mr. Petersen responsible for $227,000 in past costs and $46,000 for the 2008-2009 academic year.

Mr. Petersen appealed the decision arguing that 1) the court erred in ordering him to pay college expenses that accrued prior to Ms. Petersen’s petition; 2) the court erred in ordering him to pay 75% of the expenses; and 3) he should not have to pay for the oldest child’s expenses because the child had already received his undergraduate degree when the petition was filed.

Appellate Court Decision: The Appellate Court reversed the trial court decision as it pertained to the payment of expenses accrued prior to the filing of Ms. Petersen’s petition but upheld the order for Mr. Petersen to pay 75% of all post-petition college expenses.

The Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (Act) provides in part that the payment of college expenses is a form of child support for non-minor children. Because a child support order in Illinois can only be changed prospectively from the date of filing a petition, the trial court had no authority to order Mr. Petersen to pay retroactive support in the form of college expenses. This rendered moot the question as to whether Mr. Petersen should be required to contribute to the expenses of a child who had already received a degree when the petition was filed.

After hearing evidence as to the parties’ respective incomes and lifestyles, the Appellate Court found that the trial court was within its discretion in ordering Mr. Petersen to pay 75% of the younger children’s future college expenses.

MARINARO v. MARINARO, NJ: Appellate Division, No. A-3241-083T (2010)

Facts of the Case: The parties were divorced in January 2009 when their children were 19 and 16 years old. Ms. Marinaro was employed as nurse earning approximately $50,000 a year and Mr. Marinaro was disabled and employed as a custodian earning roughly $29,000 annually. During the trial, Ms. Marinaro requested the court to order Mr. Marinaro to contribute to their daughter’s college expenses.

Trial Court Decision: The trial court denied Ms. Marinaro’s request regarding college expenses concluding that “there must be some level of subsistence before addressing a parent’s contribution to the college education of a child.” Further, the court found that neither party could afford to contribute to the costs of college and Mr. Marinaro did not have the economic resources to even pay his current living expenses.

Ms. Marinaro appealed the decision, arguing that the trial court had erred in denying her request for contribution toward the costs of the child’s college education, arguing that ability to pay is not the only factor to be considered in requiring a contribution to college expenses.

Appellate Court Decision: The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court opinion finding that the trial court’s decision was based on “adequate, substantial, credible evidence.” The court stated that while an education may be considered a necessity under certain circumstances, a judge is not required to order every parent to contribute to college expenses. Further, the court emphasized that while the ability to pay factor weighs the heaviest, other relevant factors were addressed as well. Finally, the court noted that in general, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified students.

PAMELA T. v. MARC B., 33 Misc 3d 1001 (2011), 930 N.Y.S. 2d 857

Facts of the Case: The parties, parents of two children, were divorced in December 2008. In 2011, the oldest child was accepted at Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton, and SUNY Buffalo. The child ultimately enrolled at Syracuse at a cost of $35,000 annually. The cost to attend either of the SUNY schools would have been approximately $18,000. Mother filed a petition to require Father to contribute equally to sending the child to Syracuse. Father opposed the motion arguing that his responsibility should be limited to his share of the costs of a state university (the “SUNY cap”) rather than a private institution. Father argued that the SUNY cap had been imposed in prior cases and should be applied in this case as well.

Both parents were practicing attorneys in New York City, with Mother having higher earnings and a greater net worth than Father. Further, both parents attended private undergraduate colleges and law schools.

Supreme Court Decision: The court ordered Father to pay 40% of the child’s expenses at Syracuse, including tuition, room and board, fees, and books beginning with the 2011-2012 academic year. In reaching its decision, the court considered the child’s academic abilities, the type of college that would be most suitable for him, and the educational background of the parents. Having decided that enrollment at Syracuse was appropriate for the child, the court then determined that Father did, in fact, have the ability to pay his share of the expenses for the private education.

The main thrust of the court’s decision was that the SUNY cap is in many cases harmful to the children of divorced parents, acts to discriminate against them, and is largely unworkable. Finally, the court stated that “there is no basis to impose the SUNY cap, to the extent it is imposed at all, where the party seeking to invoke the cap has the financial ability to contribute toward the actual amount of his or her child’s college expenses.

IN RE: MARRIAGE OF FREUND, IA Court of Appeals, No. 1-100/11-0839 (2012)

Facts of the Case: Rhea and Anthony Freund divorced in 2011. The Freunds had five children, two of whom were in college at the time of the divorce and a third child about to start college in the year of the divorce. The other children were only 9 and 12 years old.

Iowa Code §598 grants a court the authority to order a party to pay postsecondary education expenses limited to “33% of the cost to attend an in-state public institution.” However, parties to a divorce may stipulate to a financial plan to pay for their children’s college education, which the court will then enforce. In the instant case, there was not sufficient evidence to show that Mr. Freund had entered into an agreement whereby he would be responsible for costs of the children’s education.

Trial Court Decision: The court ordered that Mr. Freund “shall continue to be responsible for the postsecondary education expenses of the parties’ two oldest children … and shall likewise be responsible for postsecondary education expenses for the remaining children … should they desire to pursue postsecondary education.”

Mr. Freund appealed asserting that the trial court abused its discretion in requiring him to assume the entire cost of the children’s education and should have ordered Ms. Freund to also contribute to the college expenses.

Appellate Court Decision: The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court to determine if good cause existed to order either parent to contribute to the college expenses of the children based on the factors enumerated in the statutes, namely, “the age of the child, the ability of the child relative to postsecondary education, the child’s financial resources, whether the child is self-sustaining, and the financial condition of each parent.”

If the court finds good cause, the court shall determine the appropriate amount of the subsidy as to each parent and each child under the provisions of the law.

Conclusion

Although many state courts do not have authority to order a party to pay for college expenses for post majority children, most courts will recognize and enforce agreements entered into voluntarily by the parties.