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Court: child support can include medical costs

January 1, 2007
Parents can be ordered to pay medical expenses for college students as part of child support obligations, even past age 21, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

All five justices agreed in Michael Cubel v. Debra Cubel, 32S04-0707-CV-283, which is authored by Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and involves two conflicting rulings from the state's appellate court on this issue.

The Hendricks County case involves the two parents who divorced in 2005, but have a daughter attending college in the state. She is currently 21 years old, past the age when child support is generally cut off. Hendricks Superior Judge David Coleman ordered that father Michael Cubel maintain medical, dental, and optical insurance for his daughter until age 23 or she's otherwise emancipated.

But the father argued those insurance payments should be considered child support that ceases at age 21, rather than educational expenses that can be extended past that age. He cited as authority Sebastian v. Sebastian, 798 N.E.2d 224 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003), where the appellate court held that health insurance is in the nature of child support, not educational expenses, and should be terminated at age 21.

However, an earlier appellate decision conflicts with that authority. In Schueneman v. Schueneman, 591 N.E.2d 603 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), the court held that a trial court can include health insurance payments in a post-secondary educational order, even if those payments continue beyond the child's 21st birthday.

Chief Justice Shepard wrote, "In this case, we are asked to determine whether the General Assembly intended the child support statutes to include insurance coverage for children during college, in accordance with the Schueneman holding, or whether it did not intend to provide for a child's health care costs beyond age twenty-one regardless of whether the child is attending college, in accordance with the Sebastian holding."

Nothing about the history of the educational support statute suggests that the legislature intended to end a child's medical insurance because of college, Chief Justice Shepard wrote, citing Indiana Code 31-16-6-2(a)(2) that provides orders can include "special" medical, hospital, or dental expenses.

"We do not interpret the inclusion of the word 'special' as a constraint on the court's authority to order payment for medical insurance while a child is attending college," he wrote. "If we interpreted the inclusion.... To preclude the trial court (from doing that), many full-time college students would be unable to obtain or afford medical insurance. Our interpretation is further enforced by the practices of the insurance industry that commonly permit a child to remain on a parent's health insurance plan until the time he or she finishes college."

Lower courts can use discretion to establish whether this is appropriate for specific cases, the decision says. The Supreme Court affirms Judge Coleman's decision, except for remanding the case so that the court can consider the child's ability to contribute to her college education and directing that any post-age 21 medical coverage provisions be worked into part of the decree on educational expenses.
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