Debtor’s Obligation to Pay his Children’s College Expenses Qualified as a DSO and Were Non-Dischargeable

Debtor’s Obligation to Pay his Children’s College Expenses Qualified as a DSO and Were Non-Dischargeable

Stephen and Judith  were divorced in 2009 after a 21-year marriage. During their marriage, Stephen worked for Southwest Airlines and his wife stayed home to care for their three children, Sarah, Kate, and John.

The divorce decree incorporated a marital settlement agreement signed by Stephen and Judith. This agreement included a “College Education” provision, which stated that following exhaustion of their college savings accounts, “Husband shall pay the costs of tuition, room and board, books, registration fees, and reasonable application fees incident to providing each Child with an undergraduate college education for four consecutive years of college.”

Stephen did not meet his obligations under the college education provision, which led Judith to file a motion in Maryland state court to enforce the marital settlement agreement. This motion was resolved in 2011 through a consent order. In the order, Stephen reaffirmed his obligation to pay his children’s college expenses under the marital settlement agreement, including repayment of student loans to the two oldest children.

Stephen later failed to pay John’s college expenses, and Judith filed another action in state court to enforce the marital settlement agreement and the 2011 consent order. This action was resolved by a second consent order. There Stephen agreed to contribute up to $14,000 per academic year toward John’s college expenses. After Stephen again failed to comply, the state court found him in contempt and awarded judgment to Judith for $14,000 (Stephen’s share of the first year of John’s college tuition) and the attorney fees incurred by Judith to enforce the marital settlement agreement. When Judith initiated collection efforts, Stephen filed bankruptcy.

Judith filed a proof of claim, which included

• the amounts still owed on Sarah and Kate’s undergraduate student loans and

• the amount that Stephen had agreed to pay toward John’s college expenses.

According to Judith, these amounts constituted “domestic support obligations” under 11 U.S.C. § 101(14A), creating priority claims that must be fully repaid. See 11 U.S.C. § 1322(a) (requiring full payment of priority claims). Stephen objected, arguing that

• his obligation to pay the children’s college expenses did not constitute a domestic support obligation and

• Judith’s claim was invalid because she was not a proper party and had not proven the amounts claimed.

After an evidentiary hearing, the bankruptcy court

• sustained Stephen’s objection to $8,632.85 of the amount claimed by Judith and

• found that $108,085.08 of the debt constituted a domestic support obligation and created a priority claim.

Stephen appealed in district court, which affirmed. He now appeals to our court

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