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Appeal questions 'enrollment,' self-supporting standards for emancipation

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In tackling a child support case involving a teenager’s emancipation, Indiana Court of Appeals judges disagree on what state statute defines as “enrolled” in college. One judge believes the majority wrongly reweighed evidence in this case to come to its decision.

The 29-page opinion comes in Annette (Oliver) Hirsch v. Roger Lee Oliver, No. 29A02-1004-DR-429, arising out of Hamilton Superior Court. Married in 1985, the couple had three children during their marriage and divorced in 1994. The father contributed to the support of both children and they were eventually emancipated by the court.

Many of the issues in this case center on the youngest daughter, who was born in 1990 and graduated from high school in 2009. The father petitioned to have her emancipated later that year after she withdrew from college courses less than two weeks after starting classes. She moved back in with the mother and stepfather and obtained a part-time job to help support herself. An emancipation hearing set for October 2010 was continued a few months, and during that time the daughter moved out of the mother’s house and rented an apartment.

The trial court determined that she was emancipated as of the September 2009 date when the father filed the petition. The court also ruled that her father didn’t have to contribute anything toward her college expenses, as she had started attending classes again.

But the Court of Appeals found the trial court erred on the emancipation date, because she was considered “enrolled” in college courses as of that September 2009 date as written in Indiana Code 31-16-6-6, known as the emancipation statute.  A provision requires that a child is eligible for emancipation if he or she is at least 18, isn’t enrolled in secondary or post-secondary school, and is capable of supporting oneself through employment. The trial court should have determined that the daughter was enrolled in college, regardless of whether she completed courses or not, Judges Michael Barnes and Nancy Vaidik found. They also determined that she wasn’t capable of supporting herself despite the jobs, because it didn’t appear she was able to make enough money or possessed job skills to earn more down the road.

Specifically, the majority noted this state’s public policy clearly requires continued child support payment until the child is no longer in actual need of that support, and the trial court in this case was wrong in deciding otherwise.

But Judge John Baker disagreed on the emancipation date because of the daughter’s “enrollment” in college courses as well as the issue of whether she was capable of supporting herself to be emancipated.

The relevant statute doesn’t define “enroll,” and this court has previously ruled that the term means “more than being involved in the application process… it means that one has been accepted to the institution and is officially registered at the institution as a student.” Judge Baker wrote that the definition that was reached in Butrum v. Roman, 803 N.E. 2d 1139, 1145 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004) sometimes doesn’t go far enough, and this is one of those cases.

“Accepting such a broad definition of the term means that a student could conceivably be ‘enrolled’ in a postsecondary educational institute in perpetuity without ever actually taking classes,” he wrote, adding that he’d expand the statutory interpretation to mean one must also in good faith be attending or intending to attend classes.

Judge Baker also took issue with the appellate majority reweighing the daughter’s credibility on employment history and college courses. He also disagreed on the majority requiring the father to pay postsecondary educational expenses, given the specific facts before the lower court.

“I believe that by reversing on this issue, the majority is necessarily reweighing the evidence,” he wrote.

The appellate court also determined the lower judge incorrectly calculated child support amounts and attorneya fees. It remanded on those issues.


 

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