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Supreme Court emancipation, support ruling draws sharp dissent

July 2, 2012

A 3-2 Indiana Supreme Court decision in a case involving a child’s emancipation and a father’s contribution toward her education resulted in a tough dissent from two veteran justices.

In Annette (Oliver) Hirsch v. Roger Lee Oliver, 29S02-1109-DR-530, the majority ruled that father Roger Lee Oliver was not obligated to provide educational support for his daughter Courtney. Evidence in Hamilton Superior Court showed the daughter had dropped classes, and the majority of justices remanded the case for the court to determine the proper date of emancipation and accordingly calculate the amount of the father’s overpayment.

The opinion written by Justice Steven David was joined by Justice Mark Massa and Chief Justice Brent Dickson.

“We cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion,” David wrote in a decision that reversed a divided Court of Appeals decision that overturned the trial court’s ruling. “Although the (Court of Appeals) majority’s analysis of the evidence is intricate, we believe that the analysis is simply a reweighing of the evidence, which is not permitted under the applicable standard of review. The dissent is correct in noting the evidence supported the trial court’s decision on this issue, and we should not second-guess the trial court’s determination when it is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s ruling on post-secondary educational expenses.”

At issue was the breadth of the definition of “enrolled” and whether a student who withdraws from courses still may be entitled to educational support past the age of emancipation. “When an adult child fails to pursue secondary or post-secondary education as defined in the statute and is also capable of supporting himself or herself, there is no reason for the parents to be legally required to support the adult child,” David wrote.

But Justice Frank Sullivan, in a dissent joined by Justice Robert Rucker, said “the Court has impermissibly rewritten and incorrectly interpreted Indiana Code section 31-16-6-6. .... The Court says that when the circumstances described in Indiana Code section 31-16-6-6(a)(3) exist, then a child is emancipated for purposes of Indiana law. This is not correct.”

“If the Legislature intended the circumstances of subsection (a)(3) to constitute emancipation, it would have either included those circumstances within subsection (a)(1) or defined “emancipation” in subsection (b) to include them.

“That having been said, I acknowledge that with the Legislature’s recent action reducing the age of emancipation from 21 to 19 effective July 1, 2012, … the consequences of the Court’s decision are likely to be insignificant.”
 

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