Wednesday, November 18, 2009

That's right, in Pennsylvania, absent agreement, we cannot compel payment of college tuition

In Pennsylvania, unlike in New Jersey, court ordered child support terminates at a set emancipation date, which, absent unforeseen circumstances, occurs when the child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever date is later. For quite some time now, Pennsylvania law has declined to obligate parents to provide for secondary education and support after completion of high school.

Recently, the Appellate Court of Pennsylvania addressed the college tuition payment issue. In this particular case, the couple had married in 1988 and had four children. They separated in 2005. At the time, Father was essentially a stay-at-home caregiver for the children and Mother was the breadwinner. It appears from the case, however, that when the parties separated, Father went to live in Florida without the children. The divorce became final in 2006.

In May of 2008, Mother filed a “Petition to Enforce Agreement to Pay College Expenses.” Father responded with a “Petition to Modify Child Support.” After hearing, the trial court reduced the child support from $1,094 per month down to $810 per month, apparently finding that Father’s income had been reduced. However, the court refused to compel Father to pay college tuition.

Mother premised her petition to enforce the payment of college expenses on an apparent oral agreement that the parties had discussed back in October of 2004 (notably, prior to the filing of the divorce complaint). At that time, the parties discussed at their dinner table that Mother would work for a few more years and then retire so that Father could return to the work force and earn an income suitable to pay for the children’s college educations. However, this agreement was never reduced to writing and certainly not made a part of the divorce decree. In fact, the discussion took place while they were still an intact family.

The trial court refused to find the October 2004 discussions formed a legally binding and enforceable contract. While perhaps Mother felt Father had a moral obligation to pay for college, she simply did not present enough support to the court to show an enforceable agreement. Additionally, unfortunately for Mother, the two daughters who testified did nothing to advance Mother’s position. Both girls appeared to not remember or have firsthand knowledge of the alleged agreement to pay college support.

The compelling part of this story appears to be that it made its way to the Appellate Court. An appeal to the Appellate Court (the Superior Court of Pennsylvania) can be quite costly, considering the basic costs such as filing fees and the reproduction of the record, and the attorney’s fees involved in preparing comprehensive briefs. Pennsylvania law remains clear regarding the payment for secondary education: courts simply cannot compel support after the age of 18 absent an agreement by the parties. Here, Mother hinged her argument on an oral agreement. Unfortunately, even if the court accepted all of the evidence that Mother presented as true, she simply did not provide enough proof that the parties had an unambiguous, enforceable agreement that Father would contribute to college. Rather, the testimony showed that the parties had a conversation about their finances, in the fall before their spring separation. The evidence showed that the conversation involved an overall, generalized plan as to working, saving and pooling assets, rather than a specific and comprehensive enforceable strategy defining each parent’s financial obligations.

As litigation and subsequent appeals can be quite expensive, one wonders if it would not have been cheaper for both Mother and Father to simply either come to an agreement, or, refuse to litigate the issue, instead spending the money saved on attorney’s fees and court costs, directly on the children’s college expenses.

The Opinion goes on to address a vocational expert testifying regarding Father’s employment capabilities and earning capacity. Unfortunately for Mother, the court also rejected her arguments on Father’s income and earning capacity and the lower court’s order both regarding the denial of college expenses and the lowering of support, was affirmed by the Superior Court.

You can read this case in its entirety here.