Ordinarily, a divorcing parent has no legal obligation to pay for a child's
college expenses. The theory is that we don't require intact families
to pay for college, so how can we require divorced families to pay for
college. But, parties can bargain and contractually obligate themselves
to pay for college, as part of a property settlement agreement that settles
In the recent case of
Mazurek v. Russell, 96 A.3d 372 (Pa. Super. 2014), the PA Superior Court dealt with a father
who signed a Property Settlement Agreement obligating father to pay 100%
of the college expenses for the parties children "with the parties
mutual consent, which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld".
Pursuant to the PSA, the father paid for 100% of the two older children's
college educations. The parties youngest child wished to attend a college
that would cost 50K a year. The youngest child and father were estranged
for 5 years and the child did not include father in his decision of which
college to attend. He simply choose a college and present father with
a bill for 200K over four years. Father did not consent to the 50K/year
college and refused to pay the college expenses.
Father stated that he did not consent because of the estrangement and the
child's poor grades in high school. But, apparently , Father could
afford to pay for the college. Because, Father stated that he would pay
for the college if (a) the estrangement ended (b) he could access the
child's grades (c) the child kept at least a 3.0 GPA and (d) the child
would not take his car to the college.
The trial court agreed with mother that father's failure to pay for
the college was in contempt of the property settlement agreement. Father
appealed. The PA Superior Court then had to decide whether father's
refusal to consent to the college costs was "reasonable" and
appropriate. A PSA is interpreted by the rules of contract law. Under
contract law, a court may not modify the plain meaning of the contact,
but may only interpret it.
The Superior Court determined that the phrase "unreasonably withhold"
was ambiguous. So, it looked at other evidence to determine the meaning
of the phrase. The court found that father's reasons for withholding
consent (poor grades, estrangement etc.) were reasonable and overturned
the finding of contempt against father.
This decision left the case in a mess. What happens if the child ends his
estrangement? What constitutes an estrangement? Would father get a refund
(somehow) for the child's first year of college. What about a cheaper
college? What about applying for student aid?
The moral of this case is to find an attorney who understands how to property
draft a property settlement agreement and the correct language to reach
a desired outcome. With a clearer and longer provision, the child could
have been ensured a paid college education or (alternatively) father could
have avoided protracted litigation on his obligation. Also, the child
could have reached a different outcome by consulting with this father
about the decision beforehand, even if they remained personally distant.
Drafting provisions regarding college education is perilous and requires
experienced counsel. Some of the pitfalls include: How old can the child
be? How long can they stay in school? What grades must they keep up? What
counts as a college or university? Is there a cap on expenses? Do room
and board include expensive accommodations? What about financial aid?
Must the child show proof of seeking financial aid? What happens if the
payor loses his/her job or become disabled? What happens if the other
side becomes rich? What consultations? etc. etc.