A question often asked of family law practitioners is whether child support continues when a child attends college. In the early 1990s, this issue was addressed head-on by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as well as the legislature. In the seminal case of Blue v. Blue, 616 A.2d. 628 (Pa. 1992), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that a parent owes a duty of support to a child until he or she graduates from high school or turns 18, whichever occurs later. After the Blue decision, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed 23 Pa.C.S. Section 4327, which provided that divorced parents could be ordered to pay post-secondary educational expenses. Thereafter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that 23 Pa.C.S. Section 4327 was unconstitutional, in the case of Curtis v. Kline, 666 A.2d. 265 (Pa. 1995), because the statute permitted similarly situated young adults to be treated differently by obtaining post-secondary educational support from parents, as there is no statutory obligation for a parent in an intact family to pay for post-secondary educational expenses.
Since the Blue decision, the courts have not banned parents from contracting to pay post-secondary educational support for their children. The courts have applied the law of contracts to interpret agreements written between parties obligating a parent or parents to provide such support. Therefore, if parties enter into a written agreement for child support after age 18 or graduation from high school, whichever occurs last, it is enforceable by the court.
This issue has arisen in the most recent case of W.A.M. v. S.P.C., 2014 PA. Super. 139 (July 2, 2014).
The pertinent facts of the W.A.M. case are as follows: W.A.M. (the mother) and S.P.C. (the father) married in 1994 and had a child in 1995 while living in Missouri. The parties separated and divorced in Missouri. The parties resolved their divorce matter by entering into a settlement agreement, which contained a provision for child support. The child support provision in the agreement provides as follows: "The child support is to begin ... on the first day of each month thereafter until the child is emancipated or the same is otherwise modified by the court. Pursuant to the law of Missouri, a child is considered emancipated if the child: '(a) Reaches the age of 18, unless the child is enrolled in and attending a secondary school program of instruction, then the support obligation shall continue until the child completes such a program or reaches the age of 21, whichever first occurred. If the child has graduated from a secondary school, and if the child is enrolled in an institution of vocational or higher education not later than Oct. 1 following such graduation and so long as the child continues to attend such institution of vocational or higher education, the parental support obligation shall continue until the child completes his or her education, or until the child reaches the age of 22, whichever occurs.'" As reflected in the Superior Court's opinion: "The agreement provided that the 'validity of construction of this agreement shall be determined in accordance with the laws of the state of Missouri.'"
Years later, W.A.M. and the child moved to Centre County, Pa. In July 2013, S.P.C. filed a petition for special relief as the child graduated from high school and would be attending college in the fall. In his petition, according to the opinion: "Father averred that, due to mother's lack of cooperation, he had very little contact with the child over the years." The father also averred that pursuant to Pennsylvania law, the child "is now emancipated," and requested that he be permitted to discontinue child support.
After argument on the issue, the trial court denied the father's petition without hearing testimony. The father filed an appeal raising the issues of whether the trial court erred when it denied his petition, and whether it erred when it failed to hold a hearing on his petition.
On appeal, the father relied on the Blue decision and its progeny, arguing, "That the trial court erred in its attempt 'to uphold a law passed in Missouri which requires [a parent pay support for] post-secondary education' because it is unconstitutional." The trial court concluded that the matter raised by the father was a matter of contract law.
In the opinion, the Superior Court, in citing its prior case of Reif v. Reif, 626 A.2d 169 (Pa. Super. 1993), stated, "It is well established that a party may contractually assume a duty to support his or her child's post-secondary education." As such, the Superior Court agreed with the trial court in holding that the father was contractually bound to provide support to his child during the child's post-secondary education.
With regard to the father's second issue on appeal pertaining to the trial court failing to hold a hearing on the father's petition, the Superior Court upheld the trial court. In citing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Kripp v. Kripp, 849 A.2d 1159 (Pa. 2004), the Superior Court stated, "In cases of a written contract, the intent of the parties is the writing itself." According to the Superior Court opinion, because the father did not point out any place in the agreement between the parties where the language was ambiguous or subject to different interpretations, the Superior Court found that there was no error in the trial court's conclusion "that parol evidence, i.e., the father's testimony, was inadmissible in this case."
Therefore, the Superior Court held the agreement is clear that the father is to provide child support for the child until he is emancipated as defined under Missouri law at that time, and it is irrelevant that the mother and the child live in Pennsylvania, no party resides in Missouri, and that Pennsylvania does not require a parent to support a child throughout college. The Superior Court held, "Father and mother entered into an unambiguous written agreement wherein they agreed on the definition of 'emancipated,' and the trial court did not abuse its discretion or commit an error of law by enforcing it."
This case is a good reminder to the family law practitioner that parties can continue to contract to provide for college support for their child regardless of the fact that the courts cannot order a parent to provide such support absent such an agreement. Further, this case reminds the practitioner that parol evidence will be precluded when analyzing an unambiguous agreement and the words of the contract will be given their ordinary meaning. As stated in the Kripp case: "When the terms of a contract are clear and unambiguous, the intent of the parties is to be ascertained from the document itself."
Michael E. Bertin is a partner at the law firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel. Bertin is co-author of the book “Pennsylvania Child Custody Law, Practice, and Procedure.” Bertin is the immediate past chair of the family law section of the Philadelphia Bar Association, co-chair of its custody committee, and treasurer of the family law section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and a member of its executive committee.
The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.
Reprinted with permission from the September 9, 2014 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 347-227-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com. # 201-09-14-03