Dad’s garnishment order affirmed in college-tuition dispute

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Thursday affirmed the grant of a mother’s request for a garnishment order to enforce an earlier order requiring her ex-husband to pay part of their daughter’s college tuition fees.

After her daughter began attending college out-of-state, Susan Ruch filed a petition for college expenses in Clinton Circuit Court from her former husband, Charles Eldredge. But Eldredge moved to dismiss the petition, arguing that that the trial court lacked authority to issue a new order for post-secondary educational expenses that was unrelated to the existing child-support order.

He also asserted that an order for post-secondary educational expenses was impermissible under North Carolina law, where the first child-support order was issued, absent an agreement of the parties, and was therefore impermissible in the present case.

Eventually the trial court denied the motion and entered an order requiring mother and father to contribute toward their daughter’s college expenses. Specifically, Eldredge would contribute 54%, with Ruch contributing 46%. The court also ordered that the parents’ obligations be limited to the cost of a public, in-state university, or approximately $23,000 annually. It further declined to count $1,024 in monthly VA payments daughter received as a result of Eldredge’s military service against the portion of the expenses for which she was responsible.

Ultimately, the trial court further declined to require Daughter to maintain full-time status as a condition of the parents’ obligations.

Eldredge appealed, but the Indiana Supreme Court ultimately denied Father’s petition to transfer after the appellate court initially ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to require Daughter to maintain full-time status or by declining to count her VA benefits toward her obligation to contribute to her educational expenses.

After the trial court granted Mother’s requested income withholding order, Eldredge was denied his subsequent motions to set aside and stay the order, prompting him to appeal in Charles B. Eldredge v. Susan M. Ruch, 19A-DR-2937. 

The appellate court, however, disagreed with Eldredge’s claims that the trial court’s order requiring him to contribute to his daughter’s post-secondary educational expenses cannot be subject to an income-withholding order.

“Even if we strictly construe the relevant statutes, Father’s argument fails. Indiana Code section 31-16-6-2(a) provides explicit statutory authority for the entry of educational support orders for post-secondary education. And the statutory definition of an income withholding order does not limit such withholding orders strictly to child support, but to ‘support’ generally,” Judge Paul D. Mathias wrote for the appellate court.

It further disagreed with Eldredge’s assertion that “support of any person” mentioned in subsection 1673(b)(1)(A) must mean the support of a “spouse or dependent child” as used in subsection 1673(b)(2)(A).

“First, the plain language of subsection 1673(b)(1)(A) simply refers to ‘the support of any person.’ An order requiring Father to contribute to the post-secondary educational expenses of Daughter is clearly an order for the support of any person,” the appellate court wrote.

Moreover, Father’s reliance on the term ‘spouse or dependent child’ as used in subsection 1673(b)(2) is misplaced. That subsection is concerned with whether the individual subject to the withholding order is currently supporting a spouse or dependent child other than a spouse or child who is the beneficiary of the current withholding order,” it continued.

Thus, it concluded that the trial court did not lack statutory authority to enter an income withholding order to enforce its earlier order requiring father to contribute to daughter’s post-secondary educational expenses, nor did the trial court’s withholding order run afoul of 15 U.S.C. § 1673.

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