Mandated College Support Out, State Supreme Court Says

Posted by Steven D. Eversole | Oct 21, 2013 | 0 Comments

The Alabama Supreme Court has issued a ruling that is sure to have a significant impact on future college students and their families.

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In a split 6-2 ruling, justices in the case ofChristopher v. Christopher  decided that non-custodial parents will not be required to help fund their child's college education.

Our Birmingham child support attorneys recognize this as an about-face from lower court rulings, which had deemed a mother responsible for helping to pay for the cost of her son's college costs, at the request o f the divorced custodial father.

According to court documents, the mother had argued before the court that she was unable to financially contribute to the educational expenses of her son. She conceded that throughout the marriage, she and her husband had anticipated that their children would attend college.

However, she said prior to the divorce, she earned about $1,500 a month, through part-time employment and self-employment as a hairdresser. She said she'd lost a fair amount of business after the divorce.

She noted that in the twilight of her marriage, neither she nor her husband had been able to afford to pay for their oldest child's college education, and he ended up attending a community college for the first year. Some of his expenses were paid for by her taking on credit card debt. She contended that such a move was no longer feasible.

The lower court sided with the father, ordering the mother to pay 25 percent of the costs. The decision was then upheld in the Court of Civil Appeals, which rejected her argument that the lower court had erred in considering her new husband's income in determining her ability to pay.

However, the appellate court had relied on an earlier state supreme court ruling, Bayliss v. Bayliss in reaching its conclusion. That 1989 ruling determined that a non-custodial parent should be required to help pay for the college expenses of a “post-minority” child. This is defined as a “child” who is 19 years-old; technically an adult but still unable to support themselves.

The latest Alabama Supreme Court ruling serves to overturn the Bayliss decision. In the majority opinion, the justices stated that the court overseeing the Bayliss failed to recognize the common-law definition of a child as a minor – i.e., under the age of 18. The court in theBayliss case had essentially offered up its own definition of “child,” something the current court contends it was not legally permitted to do.

Those who practice family law know the Bayliss case was steeped in controversy ever since it was first passed down. The chairman of the Family Bar Section of the Alabama Bar Association was quoted as saying he “wasn't surprised” by the recent ruling.

The only thing he did find surprising was the fact that it was decided on the grounds of a statutory interpretation, as opposed to a constitutional argument of equal protection. Regardless, the outcome is still the same: college students in Alabama will have to rely on voluntary parental support if they are to receive it.

The ruling won't affect cases in which a final decision has already been entered. However, it could affect some cases in which an appeal is pending.

Auburn University administrators estimated that approximately a quarter of all students have non-custodial parents providing some type of financial support toward their education.

This won't stop parents from contributing to a child's education. It just means they will no longer be forced to do so.

If you are seeking a divorce in Birmingham, contact Family Law Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.

Additional Resources:

Ruling major change in Alabama divorce law, Oct. 12, 2013, Staff Report, oanow.com

About the Author

Steven D. Eversole

J.D., Samford University's Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham, Alabama B.A., University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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