Supreme Court Finds Divorced Parents Not Required to Pay for Children’s Postgraduate Education Expenses
On June 1, 2016, the Supreme Court decided an issue of first impression and significant importance in the area of family law. Specifically, the Court held that Indiana child support statutes regarding divorced parents’ obligations to pay for their adult children’s “postsecondary” educational expenses do not include graduate or professional school expenses. In other words, a court may order divorced parents to share in a child’s undergraduate expenses, but a court may not order divorced parents to share in a child’s graduate, law, medical, or other professional school expenses.
In Allen, the divorced parents had an agreed order under which father was paying for daughter’s undergraduate education expenses and mother was paying for daughter’s health insurance. Shortly before daughter’s graduation from college, father filed a petition asking the trial court to order that mother share in the expenses of daughter’s dental school. The trial court rejected father’s request and determined that father was responsible for daughter’s dental school expenses, less daughter’s contributions through grants, scholarships, or loans. Father appealed the trial court’s decision and the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the matter to the trial court for an apportionment of the dental school expenses between father, mother, and daughter.
The Supreme Court accepted transfer to interpret Indiana’s educational child support statute, which states:
The child support order or an educational support order may also include, where appropriate:
- (1) amounts for the child's education in elementary and secondary schools and at postsecondary educational institutions, taking into account:
- (A) the child's aptitude and ability;
- (B) the child's reasonable ability to contribute to educational expenses through:
- (i) work;
- (ii) obtaining loans; and
- (iii) obtaining other sources of financial aid reasonably available to the child and each parent; and
- (C) the ability of each parent to meet these expenses
Ind. Code § 31-16-6-2.
The Court noted that the Indiana General Assembly has not defined the term “postsecondary educational institutions,” as used in the statute, so the term had to be interpreted by the Court. The Court looked to the General Assembly’s definition of the term in another part of the Indiana Code, which defined the term “approved postsecondary institution” as a “postsecondary educational institution that operates in Indiana and . . . provides an organized two (2) year or longer program of collegiate grade directly creditable toward a baccalaureate degree[.]” Ind. Code § 21-7-13-6(a)(1)(A). The Court found this definition excluded graduate and professional schools and therefore supported the conclusion that the term as used in the child support statute also excluded graduate and professional schools.
The Court then recognized that the General Assembly had amended section 31-16-6-2 in 2007 and replaced the phrase “institutions of higher learning” with “postsecondary educational institutions.” The term “institutions of higher learning” would seem to obviously include graduate or professional school. Therefore, the Court found this change in language evidenced an intent that postsecondary education institutions be narrower than all institutions of higher learning.
The Court then noted that the child support statutes were recently amended, in 2012, to lower the presumption age for termination of child support from 21 to 19 years old and allowed a child or parent to file a petition for education needs until the child becomes 21 years old. See Ind. Code § 31-16-6-6. As the Court recognized, although the statute applies only to the timing of the filing of a petition, the statute at least suggests that the payment of educational expenses would not extend beyond a baccalaureate degree, as most students would not start graduate or professional school until they are at least 21 years old.
Finally, the Court recognized that Indiana already goes further than most states by allowing for orders requiring parents to pay education expenses after a child reaches the age of majority.
While the Court held that the education child support statute does not give a trial court authority to order parents to pay for graduate or professional school, the Court also made two important observations.
First, the Court recognized that its interpretation of the statute does not “limit the trial court’s ability to order divorced parents to pay for education that is less than a baccalaureate degree.” The Court specifically stated that trial courts can order divorced parents to pay for trade school or associate’s degree programs.
Second, the Court explained that parents can still enter into agreements regarding payment for graduate or professional school expenses and that trial courts have the authority to enforce such agreements.
It is worth noting that the Supreme Court did not consult dictionaries when interpreting the statute, as courts generally do when interpreting terms in statutes, See, e.g., Brown v. State, 868 N.E.2d 464, 467 (Ind. 2007).
Also, it is interesting to note that the U.S. Department of Education includes graduate school under the umbrella of the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE). The OPE explicitly states that OPE’s “support for students continues through graduate school.”
Further, federal regulations define “postsecondary education” broadly: “Postsecondary education means education beyond the secondary school level.” 34 C.F.R. § 643.7. Indiana’s Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services has incorporated this federal definition into regulations, see 460 Ind. Admin. Code § 14-3-1, and the Department specifically allows for assistance for graduate or postgraduate studies under certain circumstances, see 460 Ind. Admin. Code § 14-18-11.
Also, while the Court looked to one Indiana statute’s definition, other Indiana statutes indicate that the term “postsecondary” includes graduate programs. For example, the statute establishing qualifications for Indiana’s transition to teaching program requires an individual to have one of the following qualifications:
- A bachelor's degree or the equivalent with a grade point average of at least three (3.0) on a four (4.0) point scale from an accredited postsecondary educational institution in the subject area that the individual intends to teach.
- A graduate degree from an accredited postsecondary educational institution in the subject area or a related field that the individual intends to teach.
Ind. Code § 20-28-4-5(1). This statute unambiguously indicates that one can earn a graduate degree from a postsecondary educational institution.
Another Indiana statute indicates that a medical school is a postsecondary education institution. See Ind. Code § 16-21-6-0.2 (defining education related costs to include the “provision of scholarships and funding to medical schools and other postsecondary educational institutions for health professions education”).
The Indiana statute defining “college or university,” for purposes of Title 21, also indicates that an institution that offers graduate studies is a postgraduate institution.
“College or university” means a postsecondary educational institution that meets the following requirements:
- Is authorized by law to provide a program of education beyond the high school level.
- Admits as regular students only individuals having a certificate of graduation from a high school or the recognized equivalent of such a certificate.
- Provides an educational program:
- for which the higher education institution awards a baccalaureate or an associate degree
- in which admission is contingent upon the prior attainment of a baccalaureate degree or the equivalent, for which the higher education institution:
- (ii) provides not less than a two (2) year program that is acceptable for full credit toward a postgraduate degree; or
- (i) awards a postgraduate degree; or
- of a two (2) year duration in engineering, mathematics, or the physical or biological sciences, that is designed to prepare the student to work as a technician and at a semiprofessional level in an engineering, a scientific, or other technological field that requires the understanding and application of basic engineering, scientific, or mathematical principles or knowledge.
- Is accredited by a regional accrediting agency or association or by an organization recognized by the United States Department of Education, or, if not so accredited is an institution whose credits are accepted on transfer by not less than three (3) institutions that are accredited by a regional accrediting agency or association or by an organization recognized by the United States Department of Education, with the credits accepted on the same basis as if the credits were transferred from an accredited institution.
Ind. Code § 21-7-13-10.
It is also worth noting that the statute on which the Supreme Court relied, section 21-7-13-6, defined “approved postsecondary education institution,” while the child support statute refers only to a “postsecondary education institution.” Section 21-7-13-6 was obviously meant to address the modifier “approved,” as the definition starts by defining the term as “a postsecondary education institution . . .” Further, the definition of “approved postsecondary education institution” specifically includes several institutions that offer graduate or other post-baccalaureate degrees, including Indiana University, where the daughter in Allen planned on attending dental school. See Ind. Code § 21-7-13-6(1)(C).
Regardless of the solidity of grounds that led the Supreme Court to reach its conclusion, unless the Indiana General Assembly decides to define “postsecondary education institution” in the education child support statute, the Court has spoken and addressed a point of ambiguity in an important statute. This decision will provide clarity for trial courts and certainty for divorcing and divorced parties and their attorneys moving forward.