Why College Contribution and Agreement Language Must be Clearly Specified in a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA)
Docket No. A-0412-18T3
Decided October 13, 2020
Submitted by New Jersey Family Law Firm, Hark and Hark.
In a recent unpublished decision the Appellate Division reviewed a trial court’s order for college contribution from the children’s father, Daniel, despite a strict interpretation of the parties Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) providing otherwise.
In Dalena, the parties were divorced on January 30, 2013. The Judgment of Divorce entered on that date incorporated a PSA which stipulated that the parties both waived alimony and that the mother, Christine would be the primary custodian of the children, who were then twenty-one, nineteen, and fourteen. Of particular interest here is the parties’ stipulation that emancipation would result from a child’s graduation from high school or reaching the age of eighteen or completion of four continuous academic years of college, whichever occurs last.
The PSA also addressed college costs and selection, requiring unemancipated children to apply for any financial aid and scholarships that may be available to help defray the costs of their attendance at college [and] to apply for student loans for 2 of their 4 years at college (not to exceed $10,000.00 per child in the aggregate) so that all children are treated fairly. After the deduction of financial aid, student loans, and scholarships, both Christine and Daniel agreed “to be equally (50/50) responsible for the net college educational costs of the minor children.”
The parties’ son Matthew attended four years of college, then was told by University of Maryland he had to complete an additional two credits. These credits would have been outside of the father’s college contribution requirements in the PSA. He challenged these expenses in family court. The Judge ruled that Matthew was responsible, as such the PSA nor the law were not to be interpreted so rigidly.
The parties’ daughter Brielle took a leave of absence to travel abroad for a month and take two internships before returning to school the following year. This was done with consent and encouragement of both parts. The father then tried to challenge the college expenses incurred after the break. The trial court required the father to pay these additional college costs, as he knew and encouraged the break, knowing she would return to school.
Lastly, the father argued in court that the parties’ son Justin’s college costs were unreasonable. The trial court also rejected this argument, noting that although the PSA sought to keep each child’s college costs fairly equal, the youngest child was not to be penalized for attending more school than the other children, simply by attending after the parties entered into the PSA, as opposed to the other two children.
The father appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed on the same grounds as the trial court.
This case is important for the use of consent orders when coming to agreements in divorce and family cases. The agreements must be clear, in writing, and preferably filed with the court. As seen above, the agreements may not always be interpreted strictly by the black letter. They are interpreted by courts with an understanding of the surrounding circumstances and overall fairness and equity – especially when it comes to children.
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