With the importance of higher education in today’s society, many couples who are contemplating divorce must discuss not only how child support will be divided while their children are growing up, but also whether, and how, their children’s higher education expenses will be addressed. A recent Wisconsin child support case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals looks at how to address college expenses when a marital settlement agreement is ambiguous about this responsibility.
In Marriage of North v. Farris, Ms. North and Mr. Farris divorced after four years of marriage. During the course of their marriage, they had two daughters together. Ms. North and Mr. Farris agreed to a marital settlement agreement during the course of their divorce, which included provisions for child custody and child support. The MSA also provided for the payment of higher education expenses. It stated that Mr. Farris would pay for five years of tuition and books, should their children go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and would split room and board with Ms. North.
The couple’s daughter Natalie attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and took 10 semesters (five years) to graduate, plus three summer sessions. Ms. North sought reimbursement from Mr. Farris for these expenses, but Mr. Farris refused to pay for the last two semesters of Natalie’s schooling, saying that the MSA obligated him only to pay for five school years, or 10 semesters, which Natalie had already exceeded. Ms. North argued that the MSA required Mr. Farris to pay for five calendar years, regardless of the number of sessions or semesters Natalie completed.
The court of appeals reviewed the MSA and found the terms related to higher education to be ambiguous. It remanded the case back to the trial court to make further evidentiary findings of the party’s intent behind the MSA. The trial court then undertook additional gathering of evidence and testimony from Mr. Farris and Ms. North. Based on this testimony, it concluded that the MSA was meant to cover five calendar years of higher education expenses, rather than simply 10 semesters. Mr. Farris then appealed this conclusion back to the Court of Appeals.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court’s factual determinations for error. First, the trial court had considered testimony from both parties that the purpose of the higher education provisions in the MSA was to ensure that their daughters did not graduate with any college debt, which would suggest that the parents intended to cover as much college as their daughters needed in order to get their degree. Second, Ms. North testified that she had specifically requested that five calendar years of college be covered in order to account for any life issues that might come up or any change in degree focus. Third, the trial court noted that Mr. Farris had previously paid for over 10 semesters of education for Natalie’s older sister. Based on all of these evidentiary factors, the lower court determined that Natalie’s parents must have meant to cover five total years of education for Natalie, even if this included more than 10 semesters of tuition.
Considering all of this evidence, the Court of Appeals found no error in the trial court’s conclusions. While Mr. Farris argued that the agreement should be construed to limit his costs, the Court of Appeals held that the extraneous evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that this was not what the parties had originally intended. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals denied Mr. Farris’ appeal and upheld the trial court’s conclusion.
When spouses agree to certain terms, such as the payment of higher education expenses, in a marital settlement agreement, courts will interpret these provisions strictly to bind the spouses to prior agreements that they made. When the terms of that agreement appear ambiguous, the intent of the parties and evidence around that agreement can be used to inform the court’s understanding of what the agreement should mean. At Reddin & Singer, LLP, our Milwaukee child support attorney can help you draft an MSA that avoids issues of ambiguity, or fight for your rights under an agreement deemed ambiguous. To speak with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.