Covering Children’s College Costs in California Divorce Proceedings – In re Marriage of Humphries

In California divorce cases, spouses often want to determine not only basic child support issues, but also how to cover future expenses related to their children’s higher education. In In re Marriage of Humphries, the Fourth District Court of Appeals addresses a dispute about college expenses.

graduation-cap-993663-m.jpgThe Humphries married in 1990 and had three children before separating 16 years later. Ms. Humphries obtained an emergency protective order against her husband under the Domestic Violence Protection Act in 2006. The couple later entered into an agreement in which Ms. Humphries agreed to drop the protective order and provide Mr. Humphries with child visitation rights. In turn, Mr. Humphries agreed that his wife and children would remain in the family’s residence and that he would pay various forms of support, as well as paying for the children’s private school education. Mr. Humphries further agreed for each child to “pay for four years of undergraduate education at a certified university of the child’s choice, at the rate of a school in the UC system in California” plus related expenses, provided that the child was a full-time student and maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average.

Ms. Humphries subsequently filed for divorce from her husband in 2008 and also sought an order requiring him to pay spousal and child support. The parties later entered a stipulated agreement providing that Mr. Humphries would “continue to support [Ms. Humphries] and the children.” Following additional litigation, they entered another agreement, this one stating that Ms. Humphries would be named joint custodian on three separate bank accounts – one for each child – and that the funds would be used to cover the children’s college tuition and expenses.

In September 2011, Ms. Humphries filed a motion seeking to enforce the provision of the 2006 agreement under which her ex-husband committed to paying college expenses. Mr. Humphries opposed the motion, stating that he was willing to pay some college costs, but disagreed on the best education plan for their oldest son and was concerned about maintaining enough money in the accounts to pay for all three children to go to college.

A trial court denied Ms. Humphries’s motion, ruling that the college expense provision of the 2006 agreement was superseded by an August 2010 final judgment on spousal support, custody and visitation. The Fourth District affirmed the decision on appeal, agreeing that the college expenses provision was simply part of a stipulated temporary order and was not part of any agreement incorporated into the August 2010 final judgment.

The court noted that child support responsibilities typically end once the child turns 18 and that parents are not legally required to pay for college tuition and other expenses. While spouses may enter an agreement covering college expenses, it may or may not come under a court’s jurisdiction as part of marriage dissolution proceedings.

Nevertheless, the court said the jurisdiction issue was moot, given that the 2006 agreement had expired. “Nothing in the 2006 Order indicates it was intended as a final determination of the parties’ rights and responsibilities,” the court concluded.

“A temporary order is intended to allow the supported spouse and children to live in their ‘accustomed manner’ pending the ultimate disposition of the action, the court explained. “The order is based on need and is not an adjudication of any of the issues in the litigation.” As a result, the court said a temporary order expires once a permanent order is issued.

The ability to address college expenses may be an important and significant part of a couple’s divorce process and those couples who want an enforceable agreement to address their children’s college costs would be well advised to resolve the issues in their divorce through an out of court process such as mediation or Collaborative divorce. These processes enable you and your spouse to decide how best to co-parent and support your children, including the important and inevitable costs that accrue well beyond the court’s arbitrary date when a child reaches 18.

With offices throughout the Bay Area, California divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes provides innovative legal tools to resolve family law disputes without the bitterness and acrimony engendered by the adversarial process.

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