In contracts, especially divorce agreements, the devil is in the details.

DENATALE v. DENATALE, 2021 NY Slip Op 50247 – Nassau Supreme Court January 15, 2021:

“….In the case of Beekman-Ellner v. Ellner, 296 AD2d 404 (2d Dept. 2002), the Appellate Division upheld the decision of the Family Court which terminated child support “[s]ince the parties’ child enrolled in full-time training duty at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and his life at Annapolis was largely controlled by the government, which also provided for the bulk of his material needs, he was clearly engaged in `active military service’ to render him emancipated” (citing 10 USC Sec 101[d][1]). Ex-Husband argues that the facts and circumstances of this case as they compare to Ned’s are almost identical. This case does not provide any insight into the agreement of the parties.

Similarly, in Zuckerman v. Zuckerman, 154 AD2d 666 (2d Dept. 1989), the Appellate Division held that the parties’ son “became emancipated when he entered West Point.” In Zuckerman, the parties’ stipulation obligated the father to pay child support for each of the two children of the marriage until such time as each child attained 21 years of age, died, married, or became emancipated. The Appellate Court found that pursuant to 10 USC Sec 3075[b][2]1, upon entering West Point, the minor child “is considered a member of the regular army and subject to extensive governmental control, which is inconsistent with a parent’s control and support of a child.” The Appellate Court further explained that the child “attends West Point tuition free and is provided with room, board, health care, and monthly pay of $504.30, plus other allowances. Thus, he is self-supporting and financially independent of his parents.”

Ex-Wife contends that the USNA’s own introduction handbook dictates that it is an undergraduate college. Her main argument lies with the Stipulation, and not Federal codes or handbook descriptions, as the parties manifested a clear intent that attendance at college not be determinative of emancipation. She contends that the intent of the parties is unambiguous and clear from the four corners of the Stipulation, to wit: a child’s college attendance was not intended to be an emancipation event. She therefore argues that the emancipation event in the Stipulation of “entry into the armed forces of the United States” cannot fairly be interpreted to include attendance at a four-year military college where the parties evinced such a clear intent that attendance at college not be considered an emancipation event. Although she acknowledges that Ned is provided a stipend by the USNA of $1,100 per month, she argues that there are deductions for “laundry, barber, cobbler, activities fees, and other service charges” which leaves Ned with only $125.00 per month. She sets forth the numerous financial responsibilities Ned would have to cover with his $125.00 monthly net funds such as insurance co-pays, car insurance, spending money when home, spending money when not at the USNA campus, non-uniform clothing, sneakers, underwear, toiletries, cell phone and other electronics, and other necessities. Therefore, she contends that Ned simply cannot be deemed self supporting as even the Ex-Husband claims to provide Ned additional funds.

Ex-Wife further contends that the Military Codes and citations provide no insight on whether it was the intent of the parties that attendance at a four-year military college be an emancipation event. She also argues that whether a child is emancipated is governed by the State of New York, and not federal law.

Ex-Wife contends that the cases cited above do not provide enough factual background to conclude they are directly on-point. Ex-Wife does agree that there are only two Appellate Division cases on this fact specific issue, both of which are addressed above.

It is well established that a “stipulation of settlement which is incorporated but not merged into a judgment of divorce is a contract, the terms of which are binding on the parties.” Moss v. Moss, 91 AD3d 783 (2d Dept. 2012). Moreover, “[i]n interpreting a marital contract, a court should construe it is such a way as to `give fair meaning to all of the language employed by the parties to reach a practical interpretation of the expressions of the parties so that their reasonable expectations will be realized.'” Id at 784 (citing Hyland v. Hyland, 63 AD3d 1106 (2d Dept. 2009). Furthermore, the Second Department has held “the court should determine the intent of the parties from within the four corners of the contract without looking to extrinsic evidence to create ambiguities.” Wider Consol., Inc. v. Tony Melillo, LLC, 107 AD3d 883 (2d Dept. 2013).

This Court can not analyze the facts of this case as one solely reliant upon the language in the Stipulation, or the intent of the parties as the Ex-Wife proposes. The crux of the issue regarding the emancipation of a child is whether that child is self supporting and no longer needs the financial assistance of that child’s parents. When looking at the language of the Stipulation, all of the emancipation events listed would be the result of Ned being self supporting. There can be no doubt, that a parent’s obligation to financially support their child ends if that child gets married. There is no doubt that a parent’s obligation to financially support their child ends if that child resides away from both parents, on their own, so long as they are not at boarding school or college, as the child would be financially responsible to support such living arrangements. Of course, there would be exceptions if the parent(s) agree to continue to support that child living elsewhere, as if a parent chooses to pay for the child’s housing, despite being employed, or no longer in school. That is not the situation here. Clearly, a parent’s obligation to financially support their child ends if that child becomes gainfully employed at an age over 18. Again, it is because the end result is that said child would be self supporting.

The sticking issue in this case, is the emancipation event listed in the Stipulation as “entry into the armed forces”. There can be no doubt, that if a child under the age of 21 (where pursuant to New York State law is the age upon which parents are still financially obligated to support their children), enters the armed forces, they are employed on a full time basis. Here, Wife argues that Ned’s financial situation is akin to a student attending a civilian college, on a full scholarship, who procures a part time job to help pay for odds and ends. There is no dispute that Ned is one of the elite few to gain entrance into the prestigious USNA. There is no dispute that all fees associated with Ned’s attendance/enrollment in the USNA is paid in full by the United States. There is no dispute that Ned took an Oath and committed to five years of service in the United States Navy, after graduation. However, the five years of service are not inclusive of his time at USNA. Further, he agreed to become an officer and accept his assignment, after graduation. There is also no dispute that Ned receives $1,100.00 per month from the USNA, with deductions being made for certain necessities. As set forth above, according to the Ex-Wife, after those deductions, Ned nets only $125.00 per month.

To weigh the facts of this case, the Court must look at the language of the Stipulation, as set forth above, the relevant case law and understand the legislative intent of the CSSA statute. Here, the Ex-Husband agreed to be obligated to pay child support through the age 22, inclusive of the Children’s time at college with an exception if the Child elected military service. It is clear that the intent based upon this language is that child support ends if the Child elected military service, instead of college. The Stipulation is silent as to the current situation where Ned is attending a military academy. The Stipulation clearly envisions that the first priority of the parents was to have the Children obtain a college degree and the Ex-Husband agreed to support the Children throughout that process. That was clearly the bargain based upon the reduced amount in child support.

It is clear that the New York State Legislature has always wanted children attending college supported by their parents, hence the child support cutoff age of 21. Further still, the Legislature enacted the Excelsior Scholarships which makes college tuition free or low cost depending the individual’s financial circumstances and factors. Despite these scholarships, the Legislature did not reduce the age of required child support based upon said scholarships. There is a clear recognition that the Legislature wants parents to support their children until 21, even if they have no college costs, as is the case here with Ned.

There is no dispute that many of Ned’s necessities are provided for by the USNA. However, it is questionable whether the free tuition and funds provided enable Ned to be self supporting if both of his parents’ financial obligations were to be terminated. If the Ex-Husband and/or Ex-Wife do not pay for civilian clothing, toiletries, a cell phone, food money when away from USNA, or provide him money to come home during his 5 weeks when he is permitted to be away from the USNA, would he be able to pay for these everyday items and necessities?

Although the Stipulation is clear that attendance at a college is not an emancipation event, it is also clear that enlistment in the military is one. However, as detailed as this Stipulation is regarding child support and college, it is silent regarding whether the parties agree that attendance at a military academy such as USNA, does not constitute enlistment in the military. If the Stipulation were that specific, the Wife’s argument would have more weight.

Accordingly, based upon the facts and circumstances of this case, the clear Appellate Division precedent, and the silence of the Stipulation regarding this specific issue of attendance at a military academy, the Ex-Husband’s motion to terminate child support for Ned is GRANTED. ….”