Educational Degrees and Divorce

Posted May 24, 2017 in Family Law by Michael Lonich.

More individuals today have received some sort of professional degree or training than ever before. But with the influx of costs for higher education many married students rely on their spouse for financial support. And upon legal separation or divorce a spouse who supported the other through their education may be entitled to reimbursement for their community fund contributions.

If a spouse chooses to obtain a professional degree or training during their marriage usually two events occur. First, the non-student spouse supports the other financially by paying for the community and educational expenses. Second, after the education is complete, community funds may be used to repay any outstanding loan amount. Upon legal separation or divorce in California these educational loans will be assigned to the spouse who received the education or training and the non-student spouse may have a right to reimbursement for their community contributions. However, California does not recognize an obtained degree or training as community property and therefore its value cannot be divisible upon divorce.

The reimbursement for community fund contributions to a spouse’s education or training is an exclusive remedy governed by Family Code Section 2641. But the spouse seeking reimbursement has a burden to trace the funds to a community property source such as earnings acquired during the marriage. Reimbursement is seen to give a fair “quid pro quo” (this for that) of the community’s investment in the education of a spouse. A supporting spouse may receive reimbursement if the education or training “substantially enhanced” the earning capacity of the spouse or the marriage has ended before the community obtains a benefit from such education. Contributions that may be reimbursed involve payments made with community or quasi-community property to support the student spouse’s education expenditures. These expenses include: tuition, fees, books, supplies, transportation, and directly related educational expenses. However, a spouse will not receive reimbursement for ordinary living expenses since these would have been incurred regardless of a spouse’s educational expedition.

Full reimbursement is not guaranteed though and a court may choose to impose limitations on a spouse’s reimbursement amount if their case’s circumstances warrant such a decision. There are several reasons for a limitation and the ones listed below are by no means exhaustive, but merely illustrative.

A person embarks on an advanced degree or training for a multitude of reasons, one of which may be for better financial standing. Yet, even though there is an expectation that the education will benefit the marital community there is no presumption that the enhancement will be “substantial.” Thus, if a spouse cannot demonstrate the education received in fact substantially enhanced the earning capacity, then reimbursement may be limited.

“Unjust reimbursement” can also limit reimbursement. This occurs when a court determines specific circumstances within a case renders a full reimbursement of the community contributions unfair. For example, if both spouses have obtained a degree or training at the community’s expense a reimbursement to only one would be unjust since both were at one point supported by the other. Unjust reimbursement may also occur when a spouse receives education or training that substantially reduces their need for spousal support. These examples however are merely illustrative and many other circumstances may lead a court to deem full reimbursement to a spouse as unjust.

Finally, a written agreement between the spouses that waives or modifies a reimbursement right may limit a spouse’s amount receivable. Such a waiver or modification must be written expressly; it cannot be agreed upon orally or implied and must be signed by the adverse party.

The achievement of obtaining a degree or training is rewarding for all involved. However, upon legal separation or divorce, rights to reimbursement for community contributions can become complex. If you are considering a divorce or legal separation and would like more information about divorce and educational reimbursement, please contact the experienced family law attorneys at Lonich & Patton.

Lastly, please remember that each individual situation is unique, and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results.  While this post may detail general legal issues, it is not legal advice.  Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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