Family Law: Contribution to Child's College Education
In this decision, the Indiana Court of Appeals addressed several issues, including the often-litigated and disputed obligation of a non-custodial parent to contribute to the cost of a child’s college education.
The trial court in this case denied the custodial mother’s request for contribution from the non-custodial father on the grounds that the child had repudiated the relationship with his father. The Court of Appeals has previously held that repudiation is a complete defense to a request for contribution to college expenses. See McKay v. McKay 644 N.E.2d 164, 166 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994). Repudiation occurs when a child completely refuses to have a relationship with a parent. The Court explained the McKay rule succinctly and persuasively:
Thus, because the father in McKay had “stood with open arms” to reestablish a relationship with his son, and all his son wanted was “a court order requiring Father to stand with [an] outstretched, open wallet,” the court relieved the father of the responsibility of contributing to his son’s college education.
The Court in this case affirmed the trial court’s finding that the child had repudiated the relationship with his father, describing the mother’s arguments to the contrary as essentially requests to reweigh the evidence presented to the trial court and to reassess the credibility of witnesses, which appellate courts do not do. The Court cited several cases in which the Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision regarding repudiation and a single case in which the Court of Appeals reversed based on insufficient evidence, Redd v. Redd, 901 N.E.2d 545 (Ind. Ct. App. 2009). As the bar for overturning a trial court’s finding regarding repudiation is clearly high, any appellate counsel defending or challenging such an order would do well to examine the Redd case closely.
The Court then addressed the father’s challenge to the trial court's child support order. This challenge involved an issue of first impression in Indiana: whether a child support order should be reduced for the time a child is living on campus if the court has found the child has repudiated the non-custodial parent. The Court held that a non-custodial parent should not be required to contribute to a child’s living expenses on campus if the child has repudiated the parent. As the Court explained, “To hold otherwise would render repudiation no longer a complete defense to the payment of college expenses.” This holding resolves (for the time being at least) an open question and provides guidance for trial courts and family law practitioners regarding the effect of a finding of repudiation.