In a divorce where the parties are fortunate enough to have the funds to pay for their children's college expenses, paying for college can be a major issue of discussion throughout the case. One parent may even give in on other issues to secure an agreement from the other side to pay for tuition for college for the parties' children. However, San Diego family law attorneys have struggled with the enforceability of provisions in Divorce Judgments reached by agreement of the parties. In a recent California Court of Appeal case, the Court clarified the limits of agreements for one or both parties to pay for college expenses.
In Drescher v. Gross, the parties entered into a Marital Settlement Agreement ("MSA") in which they agreed to equally share their three children's future college expenses. The college provision contained limitations on what schools the parties would pay for and which expenses were covered by the agreement. At the time the parties executed the MSA they were both employed as attorneys and earning six-figure incomes. Ten years later, the parties both requested modification of various support provisions, including the college expenses provision. At the time of the post-judgment requests, Husband earned more than $400,000 per year and Wife had become permanently disabled and was unable to work.
At the trial court level, the judge enforced the college expense provision of the parties' agreement and agreed with Husband that the parties should share equally the college expenses regardless of their current respective incomes. The trial court determined that it did not have jurisdiction to modify a contractual obligation entered into freely by both parties. On appeal, the Court of Appeal disagreed. The Court of Appeal granted Wife's request to modify the college expense provision based on a material change in the parties' financial circumstances. The Court of Appeal analogized the college expense provision to general support provisions which are modifiable unless the parties state otherwise.
Based on the outcome of this recent case, moving forward in divorce cases, the parties' MSA must specifically state that a college expenses provision is non-modifiable if they intend to restrict the court's ability to modify such a provision. Although family law attorneys dispute the wisdom of this decision, everyone can agree that clarity is always a plus when it comes to drafting and enforcing agreements in the family law arena.