College Expenses – How Courts Interpret Divorce Agreements

One of the most important aspects of a divorce settlement is the drafting of a settlement agreement.  The parties may come to an agreement, in general terms, about how much child support will be paid, and what a visitation schedule will be.  However, unless an agreement is very carefully drafted, there can be future disagreements, and expensive litigation.

A case before the Appellate Division in New York recently illustrated the point.  In Matter of Apjohn v. Lubinski, 2014 Westlaw 641870 (3d Dept. Feb. 20, 2014), the parties disagreed as to what the father was required to pay for their son’s college expenses.  Their 1994 divorce agreement said that the father was to pay “an amount not to exceed half of the cost of tuition, room and board at a SUNY college or university,” and that the child was required to apply to “the said college or university” for all possible grants, scholarships and financial aid before either parent was required to pay any college costs.

In 2011 the parties’ son attended a private college, received financial aid, an outside scholarship and a four year grant from the college.  The father claimed that based upon the language in the 1994 divorce agreement, particularly the requirement that their son must apply to “the said college or university” upon which the SUNY costs were based, that he had no obligation to pay for college because their son had not applied to a SUNY school.

A hearing was held in Family Court, and the father appealed to the Appellate Division.  The Appellate Division found that the agreement was ambiguous as to certain terms, but it ultimately rejected the father’s argument, and directed him to pay certain college expenses.