Daughters of Divorce Must Pay Sorority Expenses—Sometimes

New York Law Journal

Do you, in 2023, believe that you have your finger on the pulse of what it means to go through the process of sorority “rush”?  If your answer is “no,” head on over to the immersive world of #bamarush, #bamarushtok, #bamarushtok2023 and/or #RushTok.

Give yourself 5 to 10 minutes observing the lengths to which sorority rushers prepare for the rush experience, not to mention the lengths to which parents bury social media with this TikTok and that TikTok about how they are lending a helping hand in filling their daughters’ rush “bags.”

Data on the cost of being in a sorority varies; you will find some outlets claiming that, for example, it costs students more than $4,000 per semester to belong to a sorority at the University of Alabama. Other outlets show that cost to be between $7,465 and $9,445 at the same university. A general range of costs can also be found on the internet, suggesting $1,000 to $4,750 per semester. In any event, to be blunt, sorority expenses are not cheap.

Which brings us to this question: in a New York divorce, who pays for sorority expenses? We can look to Judge Sondra Mendelson-Toscano’s decision in C.A.B. v. D.S.B. (Family Court, Nassau, NYLJ 7/11/23), for guidance.

The focus of this article will be the mother’s request in C.A.B. to hold the father responsible for reimbursing her with his pro rata share of their daughter’s sorority costs.

The parties’ 2021 Stipulation of Settlement provided, as follows:

The parties agree and acknowledge that they shall contribute to the costs and expenses associated with each child’s college or post high school vocational education, with the Husband paying sixty five percent (65%) of such cost and the Wife paying thirty-five (35%) [percent] of such cost …

[t]he educational expenses referred to as the ‘Cost of College Education’ shall consist of tuition, room and board, required supplies by the school, required fees of the college or university, and reasonable transportation expenses for the child for (4) round trips per year (emphasis added).

In another edition of “if a lawyer intended for a certain outcome as part of a settlement agreement, that lawyer could have written so when drafting the agreement”, the court denied the mother’s request:

The parties’ agreement dictates that college expenses ‘shall consist of’ specific costs to be paid by the parties.  Sorority costs are not listed in the writing.  Thus, the Court finds that under the terms and conditions of the parties’ 2021 Stipulation, [the father] is not obligated to pay his pro rata share of his daughter’s sorority costs as college expenses.

The C.A.B. decision explains that while “there appears to be no New York case law on point, other jurisdictions have found that sorority costs are not college expenses.” Additionally, the decision notes that “sorority costs are not considered to be qualified higher education expenses for the purposes of participating in [a] 529 program.”

For now, the court found that “sorority costs are not college expenses and, unless expressly agreed to by divorced parties in a stipulation, those parents have no responsibility to contribute their pro rata share towards such costs as college expenses” (emphasis added).

But that does not end the discussion, because the court then considered whether or not sororities are extracurricular activities for child support purposes—a question of “first impression as the [c]ourt was unable to locate statutory authority or relevant case law in any jurisdiction that speaks to this query.”

An extracurricular activity is one that, according to the court, provides “a way to use free time productively as such activities are fun, build confidence, and expand skills and talents.”  Sororities, to their credit, “foster friendship, community, service, and leadership by, inter alia, hosting meetings, mixers, galas, and fundraisers.”

The court found that sorority expenses are an extracurricular activity for child support purposes.  Good news for the mother seeking reimbursement from the father, right? Not so fast.

“Colleges do not require students to join a sorority so it is each student’s personal decision about whether or not to become a member. By its very definition, then, a sorority is an extracurricular activity as this type of organization is freely joined as part of the college experience, but [it] is not part of the college curriculum” (emphasis added).

You can see where this is going: “where clear language exists within a divorce stipulation setting forth that such activities are intended to be paid through college, parents must provide their pro rata share” (emphasis added).

In C.A.B., the divorce stipulation referred to “extracurricular activities through college admission and placement, but not beyond. Had the parties intended to include sorority costs within their extracurriculars provision, they would have included language about on-college-campus and off-college-campus activities” (emphasis added).

According to the decision in C.A.B., while joining a sorority “can be a beneficial part of a female student’s college life … The [c]ourt finds that the election to do so comes at the cost of a child’s own wallet should her divorced parents not provide for contribution, within their divorce stipulation, towards the expenses associated with such membership.”

Where does this leave the divorce lawyer drafting a settlement agreement? Unfortunately, in a perilous position that involves walking what seems to be an endless tight rope. How many contingencies in a child’s life can we think of at any one moment in time as we draft immensely detailed, lengthy settlement agreements?

From the 50,000-foot view, the dilemma in C.A.B. might seem simple to resolve. After all, college equals the possibility of Greek life (sorority, fraternity) and other clubs or activities that have membership dues. Therefore, college expense equals sorority expense. As with anything in divorce, it is not that simple.  It appears that the only secure solution is to draft with specificity on this topic.

The good news is that the next time you find yourself at a dreadfully dull dinner party or comparably anesthesia-inducing event, ask the person next to you: “What would you put in your sorority rush bag?” It is a great conversation starter. Until then, happy drafting.

"Daughters of Divorce Must Pay Sorority Expenses—Sometimes," by Alan Feigenbaum was published in the New York Law Journal on September 1, 2023.

Reprinted with permission from the September 1, 2023, edition of the New York Law Journal © 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.