Archive for November, 2011

Parent’s Obligation to Pay for College Is Not Limited To Cost of SUNY Education Unless Proven Otherwise

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

In Pamela T. v. Marc B., 2011 N.Y. Slip. Op. 21355 (N.Y.Sup.2011), the court had to decide whether the parent’s obligation to pay for college should be limited to the so-called “SUNY cap”. The Supreme Court concluded that parent’s argument that before a parent can be compelled to contribute towards the cost of a private college, there must be a showing that a child cannot receive an adequate education at a state college, has no basis in the law.

The parties were divorced on December 23, 2008 and have two sons, 18 and16 years old. Their judgment of divorce was silent as to the payment of the children’s college tuition and expenses.

In 2007, the older child was diagnosed with emotional and learning/anxiety disorders, which resulted in certain educational accommodations. Despite his disabilities, he graduated in 2011 from a selective public high school in Manhattan. He was accepted at Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo, as well as other schools. The costs of college education varied from Syracuse at approximately $53,000 a year to attend, to SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo that cost about $18,000 a year. The child decided to attend Syracuse which he is now attending as a freshman.

The both parents are practicing attorneys in New York City. Plaintiff’s 2010 federal income tax return reported adjusted gross income of $109,896. Defendant’s 2010 federal income tax return reported adjusted gross income of $105,135. Plaintiff’s net worth statement showed she had assets of approximately $1,230,000. Defendant’s net worth statement showed he had assets of approximately $580,000. Both plaintiff and defendant went to private undergraduate colleges and law schools.

Defendant did not oppose an order directing him to contribute to his older child’s college education, but he requested that the court to apply the SUNY cap and limit his responsibility to a percentage of the costs of a state university education rather than to a percentage of a private college education. Defendant’s position was based on his claim that he was unable to meet the financial demands of paying for private college and on his belief that his son could receive as good an education at SUNY Binghamton as he could at Syracuse.

The court stated that Domestic Relations Law 240(1- b)(c)(7) gave the courts of this state the authority to “direct a parent to contribute to a child’s private college education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement. The statute provides that when a court exercises its discretion to direct such a contribution from a parent, it is to do so “having regard for the circumstances of the case and the parties, the best interests of the child, and the requirements of justice.” The courts interpreted the provisions of DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) by setting forth specific factors that are to be considered in determining whether to award college expenses. These factors include the educational background of the parents and their financial ability to provide the necessary funds, the child’s academic ability and endeavors, and the type of college that would be most suitable for the child.

The Court stated that DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) does not provide for a SUNY cap. The SUNY cap appeared in a number of decisions rendered since the enactment of the statute. These cases have not provided an explanation as to when a SUNY cap might be properly applied over the objection of the parent who is seeking an award for college expenses.

The court found that Berliner v. Berliner, 33 A.D.3d 745, 749 (2d Dept. 2006) was instructive because in that case the Second Department stated that there “is no basis in this record” for imposing the SUNY cap implied that the burden falls on the proponent of the cap to demonstrate that it is warranted. The inference to be drawn is that there is no presumption that a parent’s obligation to pay for college is to be limited to the cost of a SUNY education unless proven otherwise; if anything, the presumption goes the other direction. It was also instructive because the decision’s reference to the “so-called SUNY cap” implied that even the Second Department views the SUNY cap as something less than an established doctrine.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that plaintiff be required to prove that Syracuse was a better school than SUNY Binghamton, in order for him to be required to pay Syracuse’s higher expenses. The decision noted that it is difficult to conceive of a workable procedure, let alone a methodology, for a court to make a finding that one college is “better” than another. The court found that there was sufficient showing to support the child’s choice of Syracuse, irrespective of whether it is ranked lower, higher or the same as SUNY Binghamton or any other SUNY school. If there are funds are available to finance the child’s education, the fact that Syracuse was a private school and cost more than a public school was not a reason to interfere with the child going to the school he chose and he wanted to attend.

The court further held that one of the factors to be considered when making a determination under DRL 240(1-b)(c)(7) is the parents educational background. Inasmuch as plaintiff attended Northwestern and defendant attended Columbia, the court could reasonably assume that there would exist an expectation in the family, and in the child himself, that he too could attend a private college.

Having found that defendant had to contribute to his son’s education at Syracuse University, the court had to consider the defendant’s ability to pay. It was defendant’s position that even though plaintiff may have the means to pay the high cost of their son attending Syracuse, he lacked the means to do so. Consequently, he argued that he should have to pay no more than $9,000 a year towards his son’s education, an amount that is roughly 50% of the present annual cost of a SUNY school.

The court rejected defendant’s contention as to his inability to pay a significant share of the child’s actual educational expenses being incurred at Syracuse. The court held that the parties’s incomes and assets would allow them to pay for their child’s education at Syracuse.

The court further held that there was no basis to impose the SUNY cap, to the extent that it should be imposed at all, where the party seeking to invoke the cap has the financial ability to contribute towards the actual amount of his or her child’s college expenses. Although defendant’s contribution should be less than plaintiff’s, based on the difference between their net assets, and in particular what each of them had available for eventual retirement, that contribution should not be subject to some artificial construct like the SUNY cap. On this basis, the court held that defendant shall be obligated to contribute 40% of the total cost of the older child attending Syracuse University, with those costs to include tuition, room and board, fees and books.

Thus, this decision confirms that if a parent is hoping to place a limit on future college costs, it is very important to include provisions in the parties’ separation agreement or settlement stipulation placing an upper limit on such costs.