Washington family law provides for child support to include post-secondary education in some circumstances. Before awarding this type of support, the court must first determine if the child is dependent on the parents for his or her reasonable necessities. The court has discretion in determining how long to award the support, based on a number of factors. The statute requires the child to be enrolled in an accredited institution, pursuing studies commensurate with his or her vocational goals, and to be in good academic standing. The statute requires an automatic suspension if the child fails to comply with these requirements. RCW 26.19.090.
If a court does award post-secondary education support, it must determine the consequences of the child’s failure to comply with the conditions in the order. A Washington appeals court recently considered this issue in an unpublished opinion.
The trial court had modified the child support order to include post-secondary education for one of the couple’s daughters in 2014. The order included a condition that the daughter “enroll in and attend school full-time.” The daughter was not a full-time student during the spring term of 2015, due to medical issues. A court commissioner granted the father’s motion to terminate support for the daughter. The superior court then denied the mother’s motion for revision and entered a judgment against the mother for the tuition the husband had paid and attorney fees. The court also denied the mother’s motion for reconsideration, and she appealed.
A court is to interpret an unambiguous child support order as written. If an order is ambiguous, the appeals court attempts to determine the intent of the trial court by applying general principles of contract construction. An order is considered ambiguous if its terms may be interpreted with more than one reasonable meaning as applied to the facts.
In considering whether the order was ambiguous, the appeals court looked at whether it was susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning regarding the consequences of the daughter’s failure to attend school full-time. The order stated, “Failure to comply with any of these conditions shall result in automatic suspension of the parents’ obligation.” Included in this paragraph was the requirement that the daughter attend school full-time. The next paragraph stated that “the parents’ obligations for payment of any and all postsecondary educational expenses…shall automatically terminate without further court order upon written verification that [the daughter] is not enrolled in or not attending full-time…” The appeals court found the provision was ambiguous because it provided for two different consequences for the daughter’s failure to be a full-time student.
The order clearly conditioned the husband’s support upon the daughter’s full-time enrollment, but it included two different consequences. The appeals court also found that the intent of the post-secondary support statute indicated a preference for suspension rather than termination for a failure to comply with the court’s conditions. RCW 26.19.090. The trial court’s order denying revision was inconsistent with that preference.
The appeals court also noted that child support orders must incorporate the best interests of the child. The appeals court found that the termination of her post-secondary educational support under the circumstances did not serve her best interest. The court also rejected the father’s argument that the daughter’s best interest was not furthered by condoning conduct that he alleged included sending him a false transcript.
The court also agreed with the wife’s argument that the trial court had erred in ordering her to reimburse the father for the tuition he had paid for the term the daughter was not a full-time student. Since the appeals court found that the trial court had abused its discretion in denying the wife’s motion for revision, it also found the court erred in ordering her to reimburse the father for that term’s tuition.
In this case, the order was ambiguous, providing for both suspension and termination of the support if the child failed to meet the conditions. The appeals court suggested that termination was too harsh a consequence in light of the ambiguity and the statutory language providing for suspension for a failure to meet the listed conditions. Additionally, the appeals court considered the best interest of the child.
The child support attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC understand the complexities in Washington law surrounding child support. If you are facing a divorce, we can help. Call us at (206) 622-6562.
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