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NEW CASE UPDATE: Payment Towards Child’s College Factors into Permanent Spousal Support Awards


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On April 22, 2021, the Fourth Appellate District of California rendered an order stating, in brief, that payment towards an adult child’s college expenses can be factored into how much a supporting spouse pays for permanent spousal support. This case provides major support for lower support payments under the primary statute concerning permanent spousal support, Family Code section 4320. The case is reported as In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 22, 2021, No. D076487) 2021 WL 1572568.


THE FACTS OF THE CASE AND LOWER COURT PROCEEDINGS


David and Laurie separated after David assaulted Laurie and her son. They have two children, a 20-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. The 20-year-old was in college. Laurie was paying $35,000 in tuition and living expenses towards his expenses. The daughter was about to go to college. Tuition and living expenses would be $50,000 per year for her.


David was the primary earner during the marriage but stopped working after the separation due to business failures and a mental health disability he posited he had. Laurie was working at a pharmaceutical company earning $28,000 per month.


After a five-day trial, the Court found David’s testimony was not credible and that he had the capacity to become self-sufficient in due time if he applied himself. The Court ordered Laurie to pay $4,000 per month in spousal support to David for one year (until May 1, 2020), which would be stepped down to $3,500 until May 1, 2021 and then stepped down to $2,500. The Court issued a Gavron warning to David admonishing David that “he has an obligation to become self-supporting within a reasonable time.” (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 22, 2021, No. D076487) 2021 WL 1572568, at *3.)


Further, the Court acknowledged Laurie was paying “substantial after-tax sums for [David's] children's education,” and that “sending children to college is at least as much of the marital standard of living as the marital home, vacations, what cars they drive, how often they go out to eat, etc.” Citing Family Code section 4320, subdivision (n) [considering what is just and reasonable in awarding permanent spousal support], the court credited Laurie's payment of the adult children's college expenses when determining David's spousal support. (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *3.)


DAVID’S POSITION


David appealed the trial Court’s decision arguing, inter alia, that supporting an adult child reduces the supporting spouse's available funds to pay spousal support, in effect indirectly compelling the supported spouse to pay adult child support, which the law prohibits. (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *1 [citing In re Marriage of Serna (2000) 85 Cal.App.4th 482, 488].)


LAURIE’S ARGUMENT


Laurie supported the trial court’ reasoning.


ANALYSIS


In the first instance, the Appellate Court noted that it must give great deference to the trial court’s findings and rulings. “In making its spousal support order, the trial court possesses broad discretion so as to fairly exercise the weighing process contemplated by section 4320, with the goal of accomplishing substantial justice for the parties in the case before it.” Once the Court considers the mandatory guidelines of section 4320, it has broad discretion to make the ultimate decision as to amount and duration of spousal support. An appellate court can reverse that decision only for an abuse of discretion, essentially finding that no judge reasonably could have made the same order. (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *4 [citing In re Marriage of Grimes & Mou (2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 406, 424].)


The Court defined the issue as whether the court may consider payments the supporting spouse makes for an adult child's college expenses in the same way that it considers other discretionary expenditures in determining the appropriate amount of spousal support. (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra 2021 WL 1572568, at *4.) The Court identified authority which supported the inclusion of college payments as part of its Family Code section 4320 balancing. Under the line of authority, the court has discretion to consider an adult child's college expenses like any other expenditure of discretionary income. The ultimate question in determining ability to pay is whether the expense is reasonable and will result in a just and equitable award of spousal support. (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *1 [citing In re Marriage of Epstein (1979) 24 Cal.3d 76]; see also In re Marriage of Kelley (1976) 64 Cal.App.3d 82, Marriage of Meegan (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 156, and In re Marriage of Paul (1985) 173 Cal.App.3d 913.)


The court distinguished Marriage of Serna. Unlike the assertion in Serna, Laurie is not asking that David be required to support their adult children's education. Laurie asks only that in setting spousal support under section 4320, her choice to pay their children's college expenses be evaluated for reasonableness—in the same way the court would consider other expenses affecting her ability to pay support. College expenses for adult children are among the circumstances to be considered in setting spousal support under subdivision (e) of section 4320 (each party's financial “obligations”), subdivision (k) (the “balance of the hardships to each party”), and subdivision (n) (“[a]ny other factors” that are “just and equitable”). (In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *5.)


The Court summed up its conclusion as follows:


In sum, we agree with the trial court that “sending children to college is at least as much of the marital standard of living as the marital home, vacations, what cars they drive, how often they go out to eat, etc.” Moreover, a support order based in part on the supporting spouse's payment of reasonable college expenses for adult children is not “indirect adult child support” any more than considering vacation expenses or car payments would compel indirect support of the Four Seasons hotel chain or Ford Motor Company.


(In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *5.)


The Court created a 10-part test for assessing the reasonableness of including college payments into the calculation of spousal support. The court should consider all relevant factors, including but not limited to:


(1) whether the supported spouse, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the educational costs;

(2) the effect of the background, values and goals of the parents on the reasonableness of the child's expectation of higher education;

(3) the amount expended;

(4) the supporting spouse's ability to pay that cost;

(5) the parents' respective financial resources;

(6) the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the education;

(7) the adult child's financial resources;

(8) the child's ability to earn income during the school year or on vacation;

(9) the availability of financial aid including reasonable amount of loans; and

(10) the relationship of the education to the adult child's long-range career goals as affected by the family circumstances and values during the marriage.


(In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn, supra, 2021 WL 1572568, at *5.)


The Court ended its analysis by noting the public policy that a college education should be had, if possible, by all of its citizens, and that parents are often needed to pay for that college education. Considering college payments into spousal support calculations furthers the public policy of the state.


Are you paying an arm and a leg for your child’s college education? Is your significant other pursuing an award of permanent spousal support? Learn how to include college education payments in the support calculation by having a free initial consultation with The Law Offices of Jane Migachyov NOW.

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