Hill v. Hill – Court Addresses College Expenses for Children after Divorce

This is a post-divorce case filed by Mother, suing the Father for one-half of their child’s college expenses based on language included in the parties’ Marital Dissolution Agreement. The parties divorced in 2003 and addressed the cost of college in their agreement. This section of the MDA stated:
784495_81139933   “The parties shall jointly participate in their children’s choice of college. Cost of tuition, room and board, fees, and books will first be paid from the children’s college funds (whatever remains after any scholarship(s), grants, or other funds are applied or disbursed). All uncovered college expenses (tuition, room, board, fees, and books) shall be divided equally.”
The parties had three daughters, all of whom expected to attend college at the time of the divorce. The parties equally split the cost of college for the older two children. However, the Father claimed he was not consulted about the youngest child’s choice of attending the University of Alabama, and he stated that the tuition was too expensive. Therefore, Father decided to pay only $2,500 per semester.
Mother filed suit to require the Father to pay half of all college expenses, and the trial court found that the “Father should not be relieved of his contractual obligation simply because the obligation proved to be more burdensome than anticipated.” The Mother was granted a judgment for half of the expenses and for her attorney fees. Father appealed.
A parent’s agreement to provide for college education expenses beyond the child’s majority is a valid contractual obligation. Penland v. Penland, 521 S.W.2d 222. When parties unambiguously set out terms of an agreement, Tennessee courts will enforce the terms, as written, regardless of any inequity that might arise from as a result of the enforcement.
The trial court found that the term “jointly participate” in the college expenses of the children was ambiguous. The Appellate Court disagreed, recognizing that contractual words should be read in their usual, natural and ordinary meaning. The Appellate Court noted that “jointly participate” does not provide a veto to either parent over the child’s college choice. It simply means that both would participate in the decision-making process.
Father was aware that the child was considering the University of Alabama, and he discussed this consideration with the child. Therefore, the Father did have the opportunity to participate in her decision, even though he did not avail himself of the cost information for this school until after the child had made her decision.
The Father may have wanted veto power, but he did not use the correct language to ensure this. Tennessee Courts read an implied condition of reasonableness into agreements to pay for college. Courts look to how the college fits the child’s needs and the parents’ ability to pay.
Father earned $96,000 per year, and he would spend 32% of his take home pay on the child’s college. However, Father also had the at least $150,000 in equity in his home, and he could have borrowed money in the form of a second mortgage or a student loan to pay for his share. Father additionally had $1,000 to $1,500 left in a small college fund for the child.

If you have questions about enforcing the terms of your Marital Dissolution Agreement, or if you are wondering whether you should agree to include certain terms in your divorce papers, contact our office today to schedule your free consultation.

Hill v. Hill
Appeal from Chancery Court for Williamson County
No. 29624

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