Suny College Costs as a "Cap" - The Trend is Changing
These days it is not uncommon for divorce agreements to contain provisions requiring parents to pay for their children's college education; however, often their financial obligation is capped at “SUNY", that is, the cost of a public university.
Recently, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Matthew F. Cooper in Pamela T. v. Marc B., wrote an opinion holding that parents, in their post-judgment of divorce proceedings, should split the expenses of sending their son to a private college. The court focused its attention on the son’s preference to attend his selected college based upon its fit for his special needs.
Justice Cooper held that while "[t]he SUNY system…is widely regarded as one of the best large-scale systems of higher education that has ever been created, be it public or private, …. there is one thing the SUNY system should not be…., the SUNY system should not be the assumed destination of the children of divorce."
The parties parted ways and were divorced in 2008. The judgment of divorce did not address the payment of college expenses for their two sons who were then 16 and 18 years of age. The issue raised in the post-judgment action was the $53,000-a-year cost atSyracuseUniversityfor the older son. The mother was agreeable to paying one-half of theSyracuseUniversitycharges, the father was not. The father was only willing to pay $9,000, one half of the expenses for SUNY-Binghamton which was his son’s second college choice.
Of apparent import to the court in ordering the father to pay 40% of his son's education costs at Syracuse: both the mother and the father, practicing attorneys, earned more than $100,000 a year; the parties combined had substantial resources; and both the mother and the father attended private universities prior to attending law school. Also of seeming importance was the fact that the parties’ son had special needs which needs their son believed would be better addressed atSyracuserather than SUNY-Binghampton.
While being asked to decide whether the "SUNY cap" has become so ingrained that it is an "actual established tenet of matrimonial law" in New YorkState, Justice Cooper opined that he could find "surprising few" references to it in reported decisions. Justice Cooper did, however, cite to the Appellate Division, Second Department case of Berliner v. Berliner, 33 AD3d 745 (2006) which, while not on point, Justice Cooper found insightful. The Second Department in Berliner rejected at a spouse's request the Supreme Court's imposition of the "so-called 'SUNY cap," on a former husband's contribution to his children's college expenses.
Justice Cooper focused on the Second Department’s use of the words "so-called" to describe the “SUNY cap " and opined that this was an indication that even the Second Department views the SUNY cap as something less than an ingrained tenet of matrimonial law.
Further, Justice Cooper noted that Domestic Relations Law §240(1-b)(c)(7) gave the courts the power to direct parents to contribute to a child's private education absent a prior agreement based on the "circumstances of the case and the parties, the best interests of the child, and the requirements of justice."
Case law has held that among the factors courts should consider were (i) the ability of the parties to foot the bill for college, (ii) their children's previous academic history, any special needs they have as students and (iii) the type of colleges the parents themselves attended, the Judge noted, citing _ Rosado v. Hughes, 23 AD3d 318 (2005), _ Naylor v. Galster, 48 AD3d 951 (2008), and Reiss v. Reis s, 56 AD3d 1293 (2008).
What does Justice Cooper’s holding mean for parties who, in settling their divorce actions, wish to cap their financial obligation for future college costs? The SUNY-cap should not be automatically inserted into a divorcing couples agreement; rather, it may be time to consider negotiating a percentage formula which takes into consideration the parties’ income and expenses of the relevant colleges (not only SUNY costs) at the time the obligation for payment of college expenses comes due. Such a formula is less arbitrary than the SUNY-cap; gives children of divorce more options for college attendance, and, it is submitted, is more likely to withstand judicial scrutiny than the capricious SUNY-cap.