DID COLLEGE SUPPORT JUST GET BIGGER?

February 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Teresa and Charles Zweber got an irreconcilable differences divorce by consent in 2006. A special master heard their case, and the chancellor entered a judgment of divorce. Charles got custody of the parties’ daughter, Lindsey, and Teresa was awarded custody of the son, Daniel. Paragraph 9 of the judgment addressed the parties’ college support obligation. It reads in part:

“The Husband and Wife shall each be required to pay for the cost of the minor children, with Husband paying two-thirds (2/3) of the expense and Wife paying one-third (1/3) of the expense, based on the cost of the child attending college at a four[-]year state[-]supported institution in such state as the child is a resident of. All costs are to be based on the average costs of meals, tuition, books and room, published in a state[-]supported catalog and not to exceed the cost of a four[-]year state[-]supported institution. This obligation shall continue even if the child is over twenty-one (21) years of age prior to the completion of college.”

When Lindsey reached college age, she opted to attend Delta State University (DSU) and enrolled in that school’s commercial aviation program. The degree curriculum requires that the student take flight-training courses, most of which are at the student’s own expense. The expense is considerable: the university’s own published figures state that students can expect to spend around $55,000 for all of the required flight-training courses. Of course, as with all college students, Lindsey spent money in addition for books, tuition, pencils, paper, gasoline for her car, pizzas, makeup, hamburgers, hairdos, laptops and related paraphernalia, etc., etc., etc.

Charles sent Teresa a bill for her share of Lindsey’s college expenses. Included were the usual dorm and meal plan expenses, along with the charges for the flying instructions. Teresa deducted the flight instruction costs and began remitting a monthly payment to Charles for her share.

At trial the chancellor found that the flight-training expenses were necessary for Lindsey’s college degree, and ordered Teresa to pay up. Teresa appealed, claiming that the chancellor was in error due to the specific language of the college expense provision of the divorce judgment, which Teresa read to limit each party’s liability.

In a decision rendered February 14, 2012, in Zweber v. Zweber, Judge Griffis, writing for the majority of the COA, pointed out that the requirement of flying lessons and their cost were spelled out in the DSU catalog, and that they were required to complete the degree. In a masterful understatement, Judge Griffis observed at ¶ 17 that “Indeed, it does make sense that a student would have to learn to fly before he or she could graduate from a commercial aviation program.”

The opinion goes on to state:

In Lawrence v. Lawrence, 574 So. 2d 1376, 1382 (Miss. 1991), the supreme court held: “Though college expenses are not technically ‘child support,’ a parent may be ordered by the court to pay them. A parent may also be ordered to pay some portion of the resulting expenses of college, in addition just to tuition.” (Citing Wray v. Langston, 380 So. 2d 1262, 1264 (Miss. 1980)). Today, the cost of a college education is not simply limited to meals, tuition, books, and room. Instead, all related fees and expenses of the child’s college education must be considered. This includes the direct expenses charged by the college or university (i.e., tuition, on-campus housing, fees, books, or other related expenses), as well as indirect expenses that are necessary for the child to live as a college student (i.e., offcampus housing, meals, transportation, insurance, computers, clothing, and personal expenses). Indeed, all of these costs are required for the child to complete successfully his or her college education. We recognize that not every parent can afford to pay these costs. The law provides that the chancellor, not this Court, is in the best position to make this determination. Based on our de novo review, we determine that the chancellor’s decision on this issue was correct. We therefore affirm the chancellor’s judgment.

I may be wrong, but I don’t recall the appellate courts setting out a more expansive definition of college education expenses before now.

There are implications here for your PSA’s. In essence, what the COA is telling you is that, unless you specifically carve categories of expenses out of the definition of college support, your client may face some additional expenses that never occurred to you in drafting it. That could be unpleasant to have to explain to the client after the expenses were incurred.

What about where the non-custodial parent is paying college education support and child support? It would be prudent, for example, to spell out that the child support will go toward your client’s share of “Junior’s transportation, off-campus housing and all other living expenses while at college,” or some such language that covers your situation.

In any case, you should specifically carve out and allocate those living expenses, such as “Husband will be responsible to pay the cost of Junior’s automobile, including maintenance not to exceed $1,000 per year, and gasoline and oil not to sxceed $200 a month, and wife shall be responsible to pay the off-campus apartment rent and utilities,” or something like that. If you don’t, the sky’s the limit.

There are a couple of other aspects of this case that deserve your attention. I recommend that you read it. After you read it, I urge you to consider the language in your PSA’s addressing that college support obligation and whether you are adequately protecting the interests of your client.

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§ 2 Responses to DID COLLEGE SUPPORT JUST GET BIGGER?

  • [...] may recall my post back in February, 2012, about the COA decision in Zweber v. Zweber, in which that court adopted what I described as a rather expansive definition of college education [...]

  • Hugh Hathorn says:

    It’s opinions like this that make me wonder how some attorneys can handle an irreconcilable differences divorce for $500 or less. There’s no way one can spend adequate time to prepare all the pleadings, custom draft a property settlement/child custody agreement to address the unique issues of each case, attend court and take care of all the follow-up matters for a fee that doesn’t even come close to paying the professional liability insurance premium. Yet, using boilerplate agreements and doing a volume business in no-faults can come back to bite you with issues like those addressed in this opinion – – and take up valuable judicial time and resources to straighten things out later. Thank you, Judge Primeaux, for the best Chancery practice blog on the web.

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