The Indiana General Assembly’s passage of legislation lowering the emancipation age from 21 to 19 has attorneys questioning if children could be treated differently by the courts depending on whether or not their parents were ever married.
Under the old paternity and divorce statutes, children in either situation could petition for educational support up to their 21st birthday. But under amendments to those statutes passed in Senate Enrolled Act 18, which became effective July 1, the age to seek college support is now 19. There is a loophole, but it only covers children who are the subject of paternity orders.
Consequently, attorneys are debating whether the Legislature meant for the two statutes to be different or if the governing body intended for the provisions to be applied equally. Both sides agree that absent any adjustment by the General Assembly, the question will eventually arrive before Indiana’s appellate courts.
Patricia McKinnon is not sure if the amended language in the paternity statute also applies to the divorce statute. As a certified family law specialist through the family law certification board, an independent certification board with the Indiana State Bar Association, she handles many child support cases.
What the Legislature intended is unclear, McKinnon said. So, she is now advising all her clients that if there is any chance their children will be going to college after they turn 19, they should get an educational support order before they are emancipated.
Prior to becoming emancipated, the statutes do allow children to petition for the non-custodial parent to help pay post-secondary education costs.
In the amended paternity statute, minors who had a child support order issued before July 1, 2012, will have until they are 21 to file for college support. Even children who are currently very young would qualify for this loophole. For those covered by a child support order issued after June 30, 2012, they must petition for education support by the time they turn 19.
No corresponding language about this exception is included in the divorce statute.
David Morris, senior deputy prosecuting attorney in the child support division of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, explained in an email that appellate decisions have frequently applied the divorce statute to emancipation in paternity cases, see Paternity of P.W.J., 846 N.E.2d 752 (Ind.Ct.App. 2006), affirmed and clarified on rehearing, 850 N.E.2d 1024 (Ind.Ct.App. 2006). This had been done, in part, because only the divorce statute defines emancipation.
However, whether the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court read the two statutes in pari materia regarding educational orders remains to be seen, he wrote. “There are sound legal principles both justifying and rejecting the two statutes’ facially disparate treatment.”
Richard Mann, also a certified family law specialist, argues the statutes should be read literally.
The Legislature was aware of the difference between the paternity and divorce statutes, he said. Elected officials possibly meant to treat children who are the subject of dissolution actions differently.
Thereby, if children of divorce do not file a petition for educational support before their 19th birthday, despite when their child support orders were issued, then, Mann said, they are out of luck.
Michael Cheerva, partner at Avery & Cheerva LLP, maintained that not applying the loophole equally to paternity and divorce cases would open a Pandora’s Box.
He believes the General Assembly intended to treat paternity and divorce cases in a like manner. In fact, the language will be applied across both statutes even if the Legislature does not clarify the statute because of equal protection concerns and caselaw that treats children in paternity cases and divorce cases the same.
“I don’t think the Legislature’s failure to match the divorce statute to the paternity statute is fatal,” Cheerva said.
The author of the bill, Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, said he noticed the discrepancy between the statutes when the bill returned from the House of Representatives. He tried to fix the language but House Democrats, “mad about various things,” blocked his effort.
“Did it make sense? No,” Steele wrote in an email discussing the Democrats’ action. “Did it create an imperfect bill? Yes.”
For the upcoming General Assembly session, Steele, who is also an attorney, has requested his staff research whether combining the various sections pertaining to child support into one unified section would make the provisions clearer. He maintained if the research supports his view that having a single section will bring clarity, including to the language issue, he will file a bill to combine the sections.
While attorneys wrestle with language differences in the two statutes, they do agree non-custodial parents could be paying for a lot more “educational support.” Specifically with child support ending at 19, attorneys expect to see an increase in the number of educational support petitions as more families will try to get child support payments continued by telling the court the money is for college.
Traditionally, Cheerva said, the courts have considered college expenses to be limited to tuition, room and board, books and fees. However, the Supreme Court guidelines on what constitutes educational support are broad and include such things as health insurance, car insurance, clothing, incidentals and entertainment. That will likely inspire some cramming of child support into educational support.
“As this (emancipation) statute takes effect and winds its way through the courts, I suspect a lot of cases will test how much child support we can squeeze into educational support,” Cheerva said.
On this matter, Cheerva takes a literal reading. The Legislature specifically provided for post-secondary educational support to be separate from child support, and the Supreme Court has issued guidelines that define college expenses very expansively.
“Who are we to second guess the Legislature and the Supreme Court?” he asked. “They give us the rules and we use them.”
Steele agrees that attorneys will try to get more costs covered under educational support orders but he warned them to be careful. If lawyers keep pushing, elected officials will hear the complaints from constituents and end all provisions for educational support.
“Lawyers and practicing family lawyers ought to understand, college expenses beyond the 12th grade are hanging by a thread in the Indiana Legislature,” Steele said. “Tons of legislators are happy to say you don’t get any college expenses.”
Prior to the emancipation law taking effect on July 1, the Court of Appeals did address the issue of educational support in Sexton v. Sexton, 34A02-1111-DR-1059.
Writing for the majority, Judge Nancy Vaidik held that Public Law 111-2012 will still enable a child to seek help with college expenses although the age to file for such support has been lowered to 19.
However, she pointed out, since designating support as “educational” was often not done prior to the enactment of Public Law 111-2012, “we anticipate that many support orders for college-age students may not specifically refer to the support as educational, although in reality it is. Trial courts must determine on a case-by-case basis whether support is in fact educational support.”•