Sharing College Costs (Weber v. Weber)
One of the questions that I am often asked in consultations or in connection with dissolving a marriage is “What about college?” Many couples share an expectation that their children will pursue higher education. The real issue is how the cost – which may be sizeable – should be addressed.
Any family lawyer can tell you that presently, in Pennsylvania, there is no legal obligation to contribute to the cost of higher education beyond high school. A quick review of the support statute includes a specific provision, 23 Pa.C.S. 4327, which allows for the allocation of “postsecondary educational costs.” Passed in 1993, this statute applies to parents who are “separated, divorced, unmarried or otherwise subject to an existing support obligation,” which language was found to be a fatal flaw. In 1995, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that: 1) the allocation of secondary educational costs under this statute classifies young adults by the marital status of their parents; and 2) doing so was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment, extending equal protection to individuals. See Curtis v. Klein, 542 Pa. 249 (1995). If parents in a married, intact household can choose not to contribute to their child’s education, then additional rights should not exist for parents who happen to live apart. I should note that our friends across the river in New Jersey are of a much different mind, and their Supreme Court, to date, has rejected the same equal protection argument that succeeded with the Supreme Court here.
Although parents in Pennsylvania have no legal obligation to contribute to college costs, they sometimes agree to do so in a marital settlement agreement. Pennsylvania courts tend to be friendly to contracts between married parties, so parties feel confident that the language of their agreements will be upheld. It is not uncommon for parties to bargain away certain rights or assets at the time of the divorce in exchange for a specific agreement on their children’s college costs. However, a recent Superior Court case suggests that, even when the agreement seems clear, there may still be additional defenses extended to this obligation.
In Weber v. Weber, 2019 Pa. Super 133, the parties’ adult son, Michael, sued Husband to enforce Paragraph 18 of his parents’ Marital Settlement Agreement. Paragraph 18 stated clearly and succinctly:
18. POST SECONDARY EDUCATION: Parents shall equally share the reasonable costs of an appropriate undergraduate college or other post-secondary education for the children.
The issue of Michael’s standing was litigated first; the Superior Court previously held that Michael had standing to pursue this action – thus this appeal had to do with the substance of the order. There were two primary issues before the trial court: 1) Could Michael sue Husband/Father for his half of the contribution to his expenses for undergraduate college and pharmacy school; and 2) Was Michael time barred under a 4-year contract statute of limitations by the passage of time since his education terminated? Michael argued that the agreement was a continuing contract between the parties and that the statute of limitations did not apply. And, even if it did, he argued that the statute did not toll until he completed his pharmacy school education in 2015, so he would not be time barred from bringing an action to enforce.
The trial court held that Michael’s attendance at pharmacy school was not contemplated by the “or other post-secondary education” section of the parties’ agreement; Husband/Father’s responsibility for contribution was only with regard to Michael’s undergraduate attendance. The court also found that Michael’s undergraduate education terminated in 2011, when he entered pharmacy school. The court agreed with Husband that Michael’s delay in filing for contribution until 2016 (which was one year after he completed pharmacy school) was barred by the 4-year statute of limitations since his relevant education terminated in 2011, and thus Michael was not entitled to relief, or any contribution, from Father. To no one’s surprise, Michael appealed.
On the second appeal, the Superior Court was slightly kinder to Michael than the trial court, but did not grant him the relief he sought. While the appellate court agreed that the Marital Settlement Agreement created a continuing contract with obligations that would stretch over many years, they disagreed that a continuing contract would not be subject to the statute of limitations as Michael argued. As such, the Superior court agreed with the trial court that Michael’s pharmacy degree was a graduate degree outside of the scope of Paragraph 18 and that Michael’s completion of his undergraduate education tolled the statute of limitations. Notwithstanding that Husband/Father had agreed to pay half, and then failed to uphold his agreement, Michael was not entitled to relief.
From a practitioner’s standpoint, we have a few “best practice” options in light of Weber – one is to advise clients of the myriad of difficulties in enforcing these kinds of provisions within the court system. Another is to understand that a general statement, i.e., “The parties shall share the reasonable expenses of college as hereafter agreed, in accordance with their abilities when the child enters college,” will not allow for any meaningful enforcement.
If Weber teaches us anything, it is that even an obligation to “share equally” has a lack of clarity (what exactly is being shared?) and a ticking clock for enforcement. If parties do agree to a specific allocation of expenses, attorneys need to be very specific as to what expenses are encompassed and, possibly, to make clear that enforcement of the provision must happen within a specific time frame; or, include a specific waiver on that point. Finally, if the parties insist, the agreement should include a provision that a qualified third party can determine the allocation of college expenses at a future date, perhaps either by arbitration or even by a specific arbitrator, which will allow some certainty and finality for all parties.
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