I am a family law attorney (divorce lawyer) in the Bloomfield area of Oakland County Michigan.  In order to remain current regarding the law in my area of practice, I read every case decided by the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court.  The matter of Thomas J. Steiner, Jr. and Laura Steiner vs. Neleigh Regets and the Estate of Thomas J. Steiner, an unpublished opinion decided June 12, 2012, provides some interesting insight regarding college tuition for the children of a divorce and life insurance used to secure the payment for the same. 

 The Issue    

If a noncustodial spouse agrees to pay for the children’s college tuition and name the children as beneficiaries of his life insurance policy to secure the same, how specific must the parties state this intention in their judgment of divorce in order to ensure that the court will enforce these provisions?

 The Answer

The parties must be very specific with regards to both the intent to require the noncustodial parent to pay for college tuition and the intent that the children be named as life insurance beneficiaries for the purpose of securing payment of the college tuition in order for a court to require payment of life insurance proceeds to the children for such a purpose.

In the case at hand, the parties indicated in their judgment that “it is the intent of the parties that they shall both share in the cost of a college education for the children.”  In addition, the judgment provided that “in order to provide security for payment of child support, child care expense, health insurance, uninsured health care expense, should the [noncustodial parent] die before those obligations terminate, [the noncustodial parent] shall maintain the minor children as irrevocable beneficiaries of the life insurance held with Smith Barney, until said children attain the age of twenty-three years old.”

The noncustodial parent remarried one year before his death and named his new spouse as the beneficiary of the life insurance policy.  The children were age 24 and 22 at the time of his death.  The noncustodial parent did pay all of his child support so there were no child support duties or arrearages at the time of his death.  However, the noncustodial parent paid for only some of the older child’s tuition and none of the younger child’s college tuition.  The children sued his estate in order to seek payment for the remainder of the college tuition and for the life insurance proceeds.

The court found that the Judgment of Divorce explicitly states that the life insurance obligations are only to secure payment of support obligations and that all of his support obligations other than the possibility of college expenses were paid.  The court then ruled that the life insurance obligation is no longer binding, notwithstanding the age of any of the children, because its stated purpose of securing already-satisfied obligations is no longer needed. 

The court also decided that while the noncustodial parent may have technically violated the terms of the Judgment by changing the beneficiary designation before the younger child reached the age of 23, the children were not entitled to any of the life insurance proceeds.  To justify this decision, the court found that the requirement that the noncustodial parent name the children until the age of twenty-three was to account for the possibility of unpaid arrearages or other support obligations, although the judgment did not state this was the intent.

Finally, the divorce court decided that the language regarding the college tuition was merely precatory in that it expressed only a wish or desire rather than an obligation or requirement and refused to enforce the provision.   Further it found that there was no indication that the life insurance beneficiary provision was intended for any purpose (college tuition) other than to secure payment of child support which was already satisfied. 

Summation

In this case, the new spouse was able to keep over $160,000 in life insurance proceeds which the custodial parent testified she intended the children to receive.  In order to require a noncustodial parent to pay for college tuition for the children of a divorce, the judgment must state more than intent, it should state that the noncustodial parent shall pay college tuition up to a certain amount and/or a certain age.  Further, if the same is to be secured by life insurance, the judgment must specially state that one of the reasons for the life insurance is to secure the payment of college tuition as well as other support obligations.