Father Reasonably Withheld Support for College Tuition

September 14, 2014 | Child Support, Court Decisions, Legal Perspective

Icon for author Brian Vertz Brian Vertz

Parents who are divorcing in Pennsylvania often express willingness to pay for their children’s college tuition when the time should come.  Some parents even put their commitment in writing. Yet, as this case demonstrates, circumstances may change from the time of the divorce settlement to the time when children matriculate in college, and an effective agreement will anticipate those changes.  The Superior Court of Pennsylvania examined one of those agreements in Mazurek v. Russell, 2014 PA Super 130 (June 24, 2014).

In 2010, Mother and Father executed a marital settlement agreement, in which Father agreed to pay 100% of the children’s expenses for colleges that would be “reasonable and appropriate for the children, with the parties’ mutual consent, which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld.”  Three years later, Mother sued Father for contempt of this provision after Father refused to pay for their third son’s expenses at Marymount Manhattan College.  Father presented evidence, in the form of emails that he wrote to his son and Mother, to prove that his refusal to pay was not unreasonable.  Father testified that his son had estranged himself from Father, did not consult him about his choice of colleges, did not permit Father to access his academic records and grades, and did not agree to maintain a 3.0 grade point average and refrain from having a car at school.  The trial court held Father in contempt, finding that his refusal to pay was not reasonable.

On appeal, the Superior Court quoted two lengthy emails that Father wrote to his son (linked here). Father told his son he thought Marymount Manhattan was not the right choice for him, that Emerson would be a better choice, and that he would not financially support a son who refused to communicate with him. Father followed up with an email to Mother, writing that he would pay for tuition only if the son would grant him access to his academic records, maintain a 3.0 GPA, and refrain from keeping a car at school. Father also testified that he had paid private school tuition for all four children through high school, and college tuition for two elder children.  The third child had not lived up to his academic potential in high school, and Father was concerned that he lacked maturity to succeed in college without parental supervision.  Interestingly, Mother did not testify or present witnesses.

The Superior Court agreed that Father’s demands were reasonable.  The Court cited Fina (1999), a college support involving a similar contract obligating a parent to pay for college.  In Fina, as in this case, the parent’s obligation was conditional upon being consulted and granting his consent, which would not be withheld unreasonably. In Fina, as in this case, the Court held that a child’s refusal to consult with the parent and “purposeful estrangement” excused the parent from his contractual obligation.  The Court distinguished the prior decision in Wineburgh (2002), in which the parent was not excused from paying tuition.

The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision holding Father in contempt.  On appeal, the Court held that Father’s refusal to pay for the child’s college expenses was reasonable.

Judge Jenkins wrote separately in Mazurek, filing a concurrence. In his opinion, Judge Jenkins expressed reservations about what might constitute “purposeful estrangement” between a parent and child. Judge Jenkins hinted that if the child need not have a meaningful personal relationship with his father in order to deserve financial support under the contract.  It would be sufficient, perhaps, for the child to inform his father of his plans and provide his grades.

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