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Marital Settlement Agreements, Child Support, and College Students

UF_Campus_Skyline.jpgFor many students who go from high school directly to full-time college attendance, continued financial dependence on their parents is an economic reality. Realizing this, many divorcing parents address what happens to child support in the event that a child goes to college. Understanding exactly what your marital settlement agreement says on this issue is extremely important, since even seemingly minor variations in the agreement’s language can yield substantially different results. In one recent 4th District Court of Appeal case, the court terminated a father’s child support for a child who lived on campus at the University of Florida because the couple’s agreement required that the child was “living at home” with the mother, not just maintaining a permanent residence at the mother’s home and residing there during school breaks.

In 2004, couple in this case finalized their divorce. The spouses had reached a marital settlement agreement, which addressed child support. The father agreed to continue paying support on any child until that child’s 21st birthday if the child was attending college and living at home with the mother.

The trial court agreed with the mother. The child was a college student and maintained his permanent residence at the mother’s home, so the obligation continued until the child established his own separate residence, left school or turned 21. The husband appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling. The trial court was correct that the child maintained his permanent residence at the mother’s home but, because of the language in the couple’s marital settlement agreement, this fact was not what determined whether the father’s child support obligation continued.

Seven years later, after the couple’s youngest child had turned 18, the father went back to court to modify his child support obligation. Since the child had graduated high school and was an on-campus student at U.F., the father argued that the agreement dictated that he no longer owed support for that child. The mother argued that the support obligation continued because, although the child resided in student housing at U.F., he still lived at home with her during the summer as well as school breaks.

Marital settlement agreements are like other contracts in many ways, including that the parties should carefully scrutinize every provision in the agreement, since the seemingly smallest detail may hold the key to the court’s determination of the plain meaning of the document. In this case, the essential language pertained to the child’s living situation. The agreement said that the father’s support obligation continued if the child was “living at home with” the mother. It did not say “maintained his permanent resident at” the home of the mother.

The trial court’s focus on permanent residence was misplaced, since the “marital settlement agreement does not require a determination of permanent residency but rather requires a determination as to where the child is living”, the court stated. If the couple wanted to agree to tie the father’s continued support obligation to the child’s permanent residence location, they should have constructed the marital settlement agreement to say that. However, their agreement said “living at home with” Mom and, because this child primarily lived on campus at U.F., the father’s obligation to continue paying child support had ended.

Marital settlement agreements are often very helpful devices in allowing couples to expedite the divorce process and move on with their lives. However, the terms of these agreements contain provisions that will significantly affect your life, so it is vital that you take the process seriously, understand everything you’re agreeing to, and retain a capable advocate to aid you in this process. For advice and representation you can rely on, talk to the South Florida child support attorneys of Sandy T. Fox, P.A.. Our attorneys can help you make sense of any proposed marital settlement agreement, giving you the assistance you need to determine what makes sense for you and your family.

Contact us online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Appeals Court Rejects Magistrate’s Use of Personal Experiences and Tax Guide to Modify Husband’s Child Support Obligation, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 7, 2014
Government Stipend Prevents Parent from Collecting Support for Adopted Child, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, March 19, 2014
Photo credit: Douglas Green at Wikimedia Commons.