When you choose a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer to take the burden off you and your spouse, you leave your future in their hands. You are legally bound to the terms of the settlement agreement and may be required to pay more than you expected due to ambiguous language in the agreement.

A two-judge appellate panel of the New Jersey Superior Court recently held that a father had to pay half of his daughter’s tuition to attend Cornell Law School.

The requirement stemmed from the divorce settlement agreement between the father, James Livingston, and his ex-wife Patricia Rossi. The settlement, reached in 2009 when Livingston and Rossi divorced, included a provision requiring each parent to pay 50 percent of their daughter’s law school costs after scholarships were factored in, as long as she maintained a C average.

When Livingston was asked to pay half the Cornell tuition and costs, which came to about $74,580, he refused to pay her costs but offered to pay $7,500 a year if the daughter went to Rutgers’ law school instead and lived at home. He objected to paying for Cornell because his daughter had not sought his input on her choice of law school and public schools were less expensive.

At the trial court level, Rossi sought enforcement of the parties’ divorce settlement, and Livingston filed a cross-motion to have the law school language vacated or modified. The trial court ordered enforcement of the agreement. Livingston then appealed.

On appeal, Livingston argued that he should not have to pay half the tuition because his daughter waited too long after the divorce to apply to law school and to notify him of her financial aid package. He also argued that the settlement agreement implied that he should not be required to pay her tuition if he and his daughter are estranged – he and his daughter became estranged shortly before the divorce became final.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling.  It rejected Livingston’s arguments and noted that the divorce agreement did not include a common provision giving the father a right to participate in the planning of his daughter’s post-graduate education. The court further noted that even if there was an implied term of the settlement agreement requiring the daughter’s school selection to be reasonable, the facts did not show that her planning was not reasonable.

Livingston’s case highlights the importance of careful planning and drafting of divorce settlement agreements. A court will look to the plain language of the agreement and consider outside testimony only if the language is ambiguous or inconsistent. If you have are considering divorce, contact the family law attorneys at Petrelli Previtera, LLC to ensure your rights are protected.