Your Children's College Expenses as a Legal Issue

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Around this time of year, there’s a great deal of excitement in many households. After all, it’s the time that acceptance letters come in and decisions must be made. You may know this first hand when it comes to your own child’s college expenses. In fact, it may represent a legal issue to you.

Some parents argue that their responsibility to pay college tuition rests primarily on the fact that they’ve decided to divorce or separate. After all, families that stay together are not generally court-ordered to pay for continuing education.

In many cases, payment for advanced studies factors into the divorce settlement. However, that’s not to say that a change in circumstances won’t warrant further court action.

Recently, the New Jersey Appellate Division considered an appeal brought by a father compelled to pay college education expenses for his children. The facts and results of the case might interest you.

 Post-Divorce Changes for College Expenses

The parties to the Bryant v. Elam case are Stephen Bryant and Melissa Elam, formerly known as Melissa Bryant. The couple divorced in 2001 and have a son and a daughter.

According to the judgment of divorce, the court incorporated a settlement agreement that resolved the couple’s issues. However, the agreement entered into the record was not actually signed by either of the parties.

The language of the agreement contained three paragraphs regarding expenses related to post-secondary education. More specifically, the parties acknowledged their obligation to contribute to their children’s college expenses, and, said:

When [the children] attain college age and they demonstrate an interest and aptitude to pursue a college education, the parties shall contribute to the cost of that education according to their relative financial abilities at that time. College expenses, which will be paid by the parties[,] are room, board, tuition, books, fees and transportation to and from school. All other expenses for [the children][,] for example, clothing and entertainment, will be paid by the Wife or by [the children] from their earnings during the school year or during their summer vacation.

The payment of each party of [the children's] college expenses for each school year will be according to the ratio of each party's income to the total combined income of both parties for the preceding calendar year. The percentages payable by each party will be adjusted on a yearly basis based on each party's income for the preceding calendar year.

Truth be told, the agreement even went on to use exemplary dollar amounts. More than likely, this was done to avoid any future misconceptions concerning the practical application of the agreement.

Mother Sought Emergent Relief

In February 2017, the mother sought emergent relief from the court to enforce the settlement agreement as far as the portion pertaining to college expenses. The party’s daughter was in college.

Meanwhile, the court found that Melissa’s request was not truly emergent and placed the matter on the calendar for a later date. Stephen did not file papers opposing the mother’s request but showed up in court.

The court permitted Stephen to state his position on the record. He did not dismiss the validity of the written agreement between the parties or deny its existence. In fact, he acknowledged that he agreed to contribute to college expenses.

According to the formula established by the written agreement, Stephen was expected to pay 85.14% of his daughter’s tuition for the 2017 academic school year. Melissa’s obligations consisted of the balance. After applying scholarships and other money, the court ordered Stephen to pay his share of both his daughter’s and son’s tuition, within short order.

Father Motioned for Reconsideration and Later Appealed

Stephen disagreed with the court’s decision and filed a motion for reconsideration. Apparently, this was not the first time that Stephen disputed something in the written agreement. He claimed that the written agreement did not accurately reflect the agreement placed on the record at the time of the divorce.

The motion for reconsideration also requested a copy of Melissa’s tax returns and disability award letter. However, the court denied the request for the production of the documents. Likewise, the court decided not to consider Stephen’s contentions that the written agreement represented something other than entered into the record at the time of the divorce.

When the motion was denied, Stephen filed an appeal. At the very least, he felt he was entitled to a plenary hearing to determine whether the written agreement contained the terms he agreed to at the time of the divorce. He also wanted full disclosure regarding the party’s respective incomes. Lastly, Stephen wanted the court to consider whether the children were emancipated.

Apparently, Stephen was not involved in the process concerning his children’s education and decided it should impact his obligation to pay for their tuition.  He also requested a new judge.

On review, the Appellate Division denied that Stephen needed a plenary hearing regarding the written agreement. After all, his testimony confirmed he understood his obligation as far as his children’s tuition. The Appellate Division also pointed out that the issue of emancipation never came up at the trial court level.

The Appellate Division did agree with Stephen in one respect. The court should have ordered Melissa to provide her income tax records as well as information regarding disability payments. This represented the only part of the matter that was reversed and remanded back to the lower court for consideration.

Contact Us

Years after your divorce, different issues may arise. Post-judgment appearances require the assistance of an experienced family law attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Sam Stoia to see how we can assist you.