In New York, as part of a divorce and child support settlement, parents can be required to contribute to their children’s educational expenses. The SUNY Cap attempts to limit the required contribution of both parents to the cost of State University of New York (SUNY) tuition. In Pamela T. v. Marc B., a high-conflict divorce with substantial assets, the parents disagreed on each parent’s contribution to college tuition of one of their children, with one parent wanting to limit it to the SUNY cap.
Plaintiff Pamela T. and Defendant Marc B. divorced in 2008. They had two children. The parties had similar annual salaries, each earning just over $100,000 per year. Pamela had approximately $1,200,000 in assets. Marc had approximately $600,000 in assets. Both Pamela and Marc attended private colleges and both have law degrees. Their amended stipulation of settlement addressed child custody and child support. Pamela was awarded custody and Marc was ordered to pay child support. However, it did not address payment of the children’s college tuition and expenses.
In 2007, the elder child was diagnosed with “moderate emotional difficulty” and learning/anxiety disorders, which necessitated certain educational accommodations. Despite this diagnosis, he graduated in 2011 and was accepted at Syracuse University, SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo, along with a number of other schools. Syracuse, which awarded him $3,000 in financial aid, costs approximately $53,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, while SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Buffalo cost only about $18,000 a year. The child ultimately decided to attend Syracuse.
Pamela sought an order requiring Marc to pay half of all of the child’s college expenses at Syracuse. While Marc does not oppose contributing to his children’s college tuition, argued that, even though the child was attending Syracuse, Marc should only be required to pay half of the amount that it would cost to send the child to SUNY under the so-called “SUNY cap” that had been judicially created in New York.
The issue before the New York Supreme Court was whether a court is authorized to impose college-education support obligations for children who have reached the age of majority on a parent. Domestic Relations Law (DRL) § 240 (1-b)(c)(7) gives the courts the discretion to “direct a parent to contribute to a child’s private college education, even in the absence of special circumstances or a voluntary agreement. As with all decisions related to child support and obligations placed on parents, the court must put the best interests of the child first. In imposing those support obligations, a court should weigh the educational backgrounds of the parents, the parents’ abilities to pay, the academic ability of the child, and the college that would be the most suitable in the child’s estimation. See Rosado v. Hughes, 23 AD3d 318 (1st Dept 2005). Assuming the supporting parent has the ability to pay for the college, the decision regarding where the child attends college should be made by the child, potentially with input from the parents. As a result, a court may not impose an artificial cap or limitation on the amount of tuition that the supporting parent may be required to pay, as New York courts have done with the SUNY cap.
Here, the child chose to attend Syracuse University instead of SUNY Binghamton because he evidently felt that it would be the better school for him. One of the major reasons is that Syracuse has what are known as Learning Communities. These Learning Communities group students of similar academic interests into specific residences. This type of arrangement would seem to offer the child, who suffers from learning disabilities and social anxiety, an environment designed to help him achieve success both academically and socially. Therefore, contrary to Marc’s contention, the SUNY cap is thus inappropriate, as SUNY “should not be the assumed destination of the children of divorce.”
The court concluded that Marc should pay 40 percent of the total costs for his child to attend Syracuse based on the parents’ relative abilities to pay. Specifically, the court determined that less than 50 percent is appropriate for Marc to pay, given Pamela’s greater assets overall.