Buehler v. Buehler, 211 Conn. App. 357 (2022) (post-secondary education orders)
Officially released March 22, 2022
In Short: Husband could not evade an order for contribution to post-secondary education costs on the basis that he was excluded from the college selection process when the trial court found that he refused to participate in that process and did not voice his objection to the college choice until the hearing on his contribution.
The lesson of this case, for those seeking a college cost contribution, is to be proactive in offering the ex-spouse the opportunity to be involved in the selection process, and, if there is an objection to the choice of college, to immediately bringing that issue to the trial court to resolve per statute so as to preserve the right to seek a contribution.
The parties were divorced by memorandum of decision in 2008. The trial court reserved jurisdiction regarding orders for post-secondary education pursuant to § 46b-56c. The parties have previously engaged in extensive post-judgment litigation.
In April of 2016, the parties’ daughter was a junior in high school and began the process of selecting a college to attend. Wife notified Husband by email regarding various college visits that were planned. Husband responded requesting details of the trip to co-attend. Wife replied that Husband should contact the child directly to arrange his own tours with her.
In October of 2016, Wife informed Husband that the child had sent her SAT scores to the colleges she was considering and requested that Husband participate in the financial aid applications. Husband did not respond and did not discuss the child’s academic interests with her. The child began college at Quinnipiac in the fall of 2017 on a partial scholarship. Wife paid the balance of tuition and fees at that time. Wife filed a motion for order regarding post-secondary education.
A hearing was held on April 17 and September 14 of 2018. Husband objected to the motion on the basis that he had been excluded from the college selection process and therefore the requirements of § 46b-56c(d) had not been satisfied: “[a]t the appropriate time, both parents shall participate in, and agree upon, the decision as to which institution of higher education or private occupational school the child will attend. . . .’’
The trial court issued a memorandum of decision. It determined that Wife was seeking a percentage division of the allowable costs under statute for those expenses that had not already been incurred at the time the motion was filed. The trial court considered the criteria of § 46b-56c(c):
(1) the parents’ income, assets, and other obligations, including obligations to other dependents; (2) the child’s need for support to attend an institution of higher education considering the child’s assets and ability to earn income; (3) the availability of financial aid from other sources, including grants and loans; (4) the reasonableness of the higher education to be funded considering the child’s academic record and the financial resources available; (5) the child’s preparation and aptitude for and commitment to higher education; and (6) evidence, if any, of the educational institution the child would attend.
The trial court found that the statutory criteria for making such award had been met and that Husband did not make any attempt to determine the child’s interests and basis for her college decisions. The trial court found that the correspondence of the parties revealed that Wife had provided significant information and Husband was primarily responsible for his own failure to be involved in the process.
The trial court ordered that Husband pay the full amount of the next semester’s invoice, net of scholarships and financial aid, and thereafter, 2/3 of the balance of the costs, including 2/3 of the parental responsibility for Sallie Mae loans. Husband appealed.
Husband first claimed on appeal that the trial court misconstrued § 46b-56c(d) when it ordered him to pay a portion of the college expenses, by disregarding the statute’s requirement that both parents participate in and agree upon the decision about which educational institution to attend. Husband also argued that the trial court improperly found that he refused to participate.
The Appellate Court applied plenary review to construction of the statute and the clearly erroneous standard to the finding of facts. Husband argued that the statutory language must be strictly construed as it is in derogation of common law, which he argued provides that obligation to support a child terminates at the age of majority. Husband further argued that the language of § 46b-56c(d) is mandatory. The Appellate Court agreed with Husband’s assertion of legal principles but disagreed that the trial court misapplied them. The Appellate Court noted that “shall participate in, and agree upon” required Husband to make efforts to take part. The trial court found that Husband had refused to participate and the trial court’s findings that he refused to do so were not clearly erroneous. Husband’s failure to participate also provided no indication that he disagreed with the ultimate decision until the hearing on the motion for contribution.
Husband’s second claim was that the trial court improperly “(1) predicated its decision on factual findings from the parties’ dissolution of marriage and contentious relationship, and (2) considered his relationship with Hannah when issuing its support order.” Husband argued that, by reciting the long and acrimonious history of the divorce and post-judgment litigation, it relied on that history improperly in entering its orders. The Appellate Court disagreed, finding that the factual recitation was relevant to explaining the parties’ lack of communications regarding the college selection process. The Appellate Court further determined that the trial court did not err by considering the relationship, but merely pointed out one way that Husband could have been involved in the college selection process.
Husband’s third claim on appeal was that the trial court’s finding that Wife attempted to include him in the college selection process was not supported by the evidence. The Appellate Court reviewed this claim under the clearly erroneous standard of review and found that the finding was supported by the record. Wife had sent emails through the process about the child’s interest in college.
The Judgment was affirmed.