Beth Anne and Mark Weber were married and produced two children, one in 1984 and another in 1994. In their 1999 divorce, they formed a Property Settlement Agreement containing provisions that they would share equally the costs of “an appropriate undergraduate college or other post-secondary education for the children.”
In 2007, Beth Anne filed to enforce the Agreement stating that Mark had not paid his share of their son’s tuition at Florida State University. The son also intervened claiming status as a beneficiary of the contract. For whatever reason, Beth Anne entered a nonsuit to her “special relief petition.” Although granted standing the son did not prosecute his claim. Then, anyway.
In 2016, the son filed his own special relief petition seeking payment of half of the $166,000.00 cost of his undergraduate education, which had concluded in 2011. Father filed an answer asserting a four-year statute of limitations under 42 Pa.C.S. 5528(a)(8). Although not in his petition itself, he also asserted that he was also entitled to recover half of the cost of his graduate education to secure a pharmacy degree. The half cost of this endeavor was $98,000.00. At argument on Mark’s defense, the court allowed son to amend his petition to include the graduate degree costs.
Following argument, the trial court in Crawford County denied the third party claim stating that the son’s claim was derivative of Beth Anne’s rights and he lacked standing in the wake of his mother’s election to withdraw her claims. Son appealed and the trial court ruling was reversed in a published Opinion in 2017.
On remand, Father moved for summary judgment based upon the statute of limitations. Although not clear from the Opinion, it appears that Beth Anne joined in her son’s claims at least on brief. Nonetheless, the Trial Court held the statute of limitations applied to the undergraduate degree claims and that the Agreement language did not support the notion that “post-secondary education” included studies undertaken after college. Son again appealed.
The Superior Court relied upon a 1992 case, delCastillo v. delCastillo, 617 A.2d 26 (Pa.Super. 1992) to hold that an agreement to pay for education “beyond the high school level,” did not encompass graduate studies. The Opinion in this case by Judge Mary Murray noted that under contract law, the trial court interprets the contract where there is ambiguity. What made the facts of this case more complex was an inconsistency in son’s factual statements. In his early pleadings, he said he “finished” undergraduate studies and then began a graduate pharmacy program. The facts at trial established that he was never awarded an undergraduate degree, but he was admitted to a pharmacy program in Florida nonetheless. The degree of doctor of pharmacy can be awarded to an undergraduate. The Trial Court found and the Superior Court affirmed the concept that a graduate degree was not within the contemplation of the Agreement formed.
On the statute of limitations issue related to the Florida State undergraduate studies, the Superior Court quotes language from a 2006 case, Crispo v. Crispo, 909 A.2d 308 (Pa. Super. 2006), which implies that contracts to pay debt in property agreements are “continuing” obligations for which the statute of limitations is inapplicable . Id. at 315. It then contrasted Crispo with a more recent case, K.A.R. v. T.G.L. 107 A.3d 770,775 (Pa. Super. 2014) where the court held that failure to enforce a onetime payment due under an agreement was subject to the limitations statute. Crispo appears to have been distinguished because the time for the payment of the debt was not fixed. In the instant case, the Superior Court approved of the Trial Court’s holding that once son ceased his undergraduate studies in 2011, the otherwise continuing obligation was fixed such that the statute of limitations would apply.
We wrote about K.A.R. in a blog published on January 26, 2015. In that discussion we noted that, reconciling fixed from continuing obligations could be a tricky thing, but suggested that litigants should not be permitted to keep claims in the closet indefinitely. The facts in Weber are indeed tricky. We know that son stopped attending undergraduate school at Florida State in 2011. We also know that when he filed for what he first called his graduate degree in 2016 he said he had been in graduate school since 2011. This Opinion draws a line between the undergraduate and graduate educations, although it appears to also acknowledge that a person can complete an undergraduate degree and be awarded a doctor of pharmacy for those endeavors. See Opinion at p. 11. Query whether son could claim a continuing obligation had he taken eight years and $362,000.00 to finish a pharmacy degree of whatever Latin appellation, whether bachelor or doctor of pharmacy?
For the practitioner, this is an area where careful drafting counts. The National Student Clearinghouse Center reported that only 58% of the students who started four-year College in 2012 had earned a degree six years later. Agreements need to regulate if not capitate these investments of after tax income.