THE ZWEBER ZIG-ZAG ON COLLEGE SUPPORT

January 3, 2013 § 3 Comments

You may recall my post back in February, 2012, about the COA decision in Zweber v. Zweber, in which that court adopted what I described as a rather expansive definition of college education support. This is the case, you may remember, where the daughter took flying lessons toward an aviation degree, and the mother balked at paying her part of the rather pricy tab. The chancellor ruled that she must, and the COA agreed, holding in essence that any expense in furtherance of the college degree is included. 

Well, the MSSC reversed that COA decision on December 13, 2012. The MSSC decision in Zweber v. Zweber is one that all of you who prepare property settlement agreements (PSA) should study and take to heart.

The parties in Zweber had entered into a PSA that included the following language for college education support:

“The Husband and Wife shall each be required to pay for the cost of the minor children, with Husband paying two-thirds (2/3) of the expense and Wife paying one-third (1/3) of the expense, based on the cost of the child attending college at a four[-]year state[-]supported institution in such state as the child is a resident of. All costs are to be based on the average costs of meals, tuition, books and room, published in a state[-]supported catalog and not to exceed the cost of a four[-]year state[-]supported institution. This obligation shall continue even if the child is over twenty-one (21) years of age prior to the completion of college.” [Emphasis added]

At ¶ 15, Justice Dickinson’s opinion states: ” … the Court of Appeals correctly concluded that … in certain situations, parents may be required to pay for their children’s college educations and the extent of that obligation may go beyond payment for “meals, tuition, books, and room. But because the divorce decree in this case includes a specific provision addressing specific college expenses, it is distinguished” [from the cases cited by the COA].

This case highlights the critical importance of making sure that the PSA you offer for a particular client specifically meets the needs of that particular client. Don’t assume just because a provision got the desired results in one case that it will do the job an another case. One size does not fit all. In Zweber, if the provision had been drawn with less specificity, and possibly even made reference to the flying lessons, the result would likely have been different. Instead, the Supreme Court held that the unambiguous language of the parties’ contract governed. The specific, narrowly drafted language of the agreement saved Mrs. Zweber and cost Mr. Zweber.

As the MSSC said, in some cases, the covered costs may well go beyond, meals, tuition, books and room, but that depends on how the PSA is drafted.

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