Hirsch v. Oliver (Ind. June 29, 2012)
In this case, the Supreme Court clarified some important issues regarding emancipation and a parent’s obligation to pay child support for post-secondary education expenses.
A father petitioned the trial court to find that one of his children was emancipated. The mother stipulated that the daughter was emancipated, but the mother and father disagreed on the date as of which the daughter was emancipated. The trial court eventually issued an order finding: (1) the daughter was emancipated on the date urged by the father; (2) the father did not have to contribute toward the daughter’s post-secondary educational expenses; (3) the father had overpaid child support and mother, therefore, had to repay that amount; (4) the father owed mother nothing toward the children’s medical expenses; (5) mother was required to pay $5,000 in attorney’s fees to the father; and (6) mother was required to pay the father’s current wife $227 in witness-expense fees. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on every ground. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals on grounds 3 through 6 and addressed the emancipation and post-secondary education issues.
First, the Supreme Court addressed a split on the Court of Appeals regarding the emancipation statute, Indiana Code § 31-16-6-6. This statute has three grounds for emancipation; the one at issue here occurs when:
- (3) The child:
- (A) is at least eighteen (18) years of age;
- (B) has not attended a secondary school or postsecondary educational institution for the prior four (4) months and is not enrolled in a secondary school or post-secondary educational institution; and
- (C) is or is capable of supporting himself or herself through employment.
Some panels of the Court of Appeals had found that if the requirements under this subsection are met, the duty to provide support may cease, but the child is not emancipated. Other panels had found that a finding under this subsection renders the child emancipated and terminates the duty to provide support. The Supreme Court clarified that if the conditions under this section are satisfied, the child is emancipated and the obligation to provide support ceases.
Justice Sullivan, with Justice Rucker, dissented. Justice Sullivan stated flatly that the majority misread the statute, whose plain language indicates that although support obligations cease when the requirements of subsection (3) are met, a child is not emancipated based on these findings. Justice Sullivan went on to note, however, that with the Legislature’s recent amendments to the emancipation statute, this point will make little difference going forward.
Next, the Supreme Court altered the definition of “enrolled” for purposes of the emancipation statute. Previously, “enrolled” meant: “ more than being involved in the application process; rather, it means that one has been accepted to the institution and is officially registered at the institution as a student.” Butrum v. Roman, 803 N.E.2d 1139, 1145 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004), trans. denied. The Supreme Court found this definition insufficient and adopted the following definition: “is accepted to the institution, is officially registered at the institution as a student, and in good faith is attending or intends to attend the institution in the foreseeable future.” Although this new definition may create more questions of fact for a trial court to resolve, it seems to be a more fair and rational definition. For example, in this case, the daughter had attended classes for two weeks, then dropped all classes and expressed skepticism that she would return to class. Under the prior definition, however, she nonetheless remained enrolled. As the Supreme Court explained, under the old definition “an eighteen-year-old child could register for classes and never attend them while his or her parent continues, as required by law, to pay child support. A parent should not be burdened with the obligation of supporting his or her adult child in these circumstances unless that child, in good faith, is furthering or intends to further his or her education.”
The Supreme Court then found that the Court of Appeals had improperly reweighed the evidence in reversing the trial court’s finding that the daughter was capable of supporting herself. The Supreme Court recognized that evidence would support a finding that the daughter was either capable or incapable of supporting herself. Weighing this evidence was for the trial court, not for an appellate court.
A final important aspect of the Supreme Court’s discussion of emancipation came in footnote 7. The Court stated, albeit likely in dicta, that a custodial parent’s concession as to a child’s emancipation does not automatically render the child emancipated. This statement makes sense because child support is for the benefit of a child and should only indirectly benefit a custodial parent.
The Supreme Court then went on to address the requirement to pay for post-secondary education expenses. Again, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals improperly reweighed the evidence in reversing the trial court’s finding that the father should not be required to contribute to his daughter’s post-secondary expense. This aspect of the Court’s holding is a straight-forward standard-of-review analysis. The opinion does contain some useful explanation of the relevant factors for determining whether a parent is required to contribute to post-secondary expenses and should be reviewed by any family law practitioner.