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Supreme Court Clarifies Family Court’s Ability To Enforce Pre-2004 Orders Regarding Payment Of College Expenses

On Behalf of | Feb 20, 2013 | Divorce & Family

In 2004, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a statute which barred a divorce court from making a new order obligating a divorced parent to pay for a child’s college expenses. Numerous cases heard by the Supreme Court have held that the statute is not retroactive. In other words, decrees prior to the date of the statute’s passage in February of 2004 remain enforceable.

The Supreme Court recently answered the question of how definite the language in a pre-2004 Order must be before a parent can be compelled to pay for college expenses. In the case of In re: Poulin, the parties were divorced in 1996. Their Divorce Decree stated that “the parties agree to contribute to their children’s college education to the extent each party is financially able. The actual contributions shall be determined when each child is near college age.”

When the father refused to contribute towards one of the children’s college expenses, the mother filed a Motion for Contempt. The trial court dismissed the Motion for Contempt finding that because the Divorce Decree did not set forth a specific percentage or dollar amount that the father was obligated to pay, it could not be enforced through a motion for contempt.

On appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed holding that while there was no specific percentage or dollar obligation imposed by the Divorce Decree, it did indicate that the parents would contribute to college expenses. Therefore the Decree could be enforced through a motion for contempt and could even be modified by a Court post 2004. The Poulin case is important for the proposition that pre-2004 divorce decrees must be read very carefully to determine whether an obligation to pay for college expenses is enforceable today.

Andrew J. Piela is a Director at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A.  Mr. Piela concentrates his practice in civil litigation, family law, probate and land use litigation. You can reach Attorney Piela by e-mail at [email protected].