Family Law: Dad must pay half for college

Dad Must Pay Half for College

By Deborah Elkins
Published: January 26, 2012

Tags: Family Law Attorney, , ,
In mother’s show cause proceeding, the Court of Appeals affirms a trial court order requiring father to pay one-half of his son’s college attendance under a 1996 agreement incorporated in the final divorce decree; the trial court properly excluded evidence of mother’s alleged breaches and interpreted the agreement to obligate father on college costs without being consulted.

Parents divorced in 1996.  Their final divorce decree incorporated an agreement regarding their son’s education.  The agreement provided for sharing expenses equally and expressly required consultation with father through grade 12. After son began college, mother petitioned for a rule to show cause, alleging father’s breach of his obligations under the divorce decree.  Father responded that the agreement required consulting him before he could be liable for college costs.  He also argued mother had breached the agreement.  The trial court excluded father’s evidence of alleged breaches and interpreted the agreement not to require consulting father on college.

On appeal, father challenges the trial court’s exclusion of his evidence of other alleged breaches and its interpretation of the agreement.  We affirm.  Admissibility of evidence is a discretionary determination.  The contract defense of material breach does not apply in show cause proceedings to enforce an agreement incorporated into a decree under Va. Code § 20-109.1.  Opening the door to evidence of mutual allegations of noncompliance would have the effect of turning minor skirmishes into an Armageddon of recriminations.  Contract principles do apply to interpretation of agreements.  Ambiguity is a question of law we review de novo.  The agreement here unambiguously requires father to pay one-half of college costs and does not specifically require consulting him.  A paragraph included in the divorce decree by its terms is limited to the child’s minority and specifies a geographic scope inappropriate for college.  The trial court correctly interpreted the agreement not to require consulting father on college.  We remand for a determination of mother’s appellate attorney’s fees to which she is entitled under the express terms of the agreement.

Bousman v. Lhommedieu (McCullough) No. 0932-11-4, Jan. 24, 2012; Fairfax County Cir. Ct. (Devine) David L. Duff for appellant, Stephen G. Cochran for appellee.  VLW 012-7-018 (UP), 8 pp.

Please contact us if you have legal questions.

Tucker Griffin Barnes P.C.
Charlottesville, Virginia


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