Ruling major change in Alabama divorce law

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Posted: Saturday, October 12, 2013 11:39 pm

A recent Alabama Supreme Court decision could have a significant financial impact on future college students and their families.

On Oct. 4, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in Christopher v. Christopher that non-custodial parents are no longer required to help pay their child’s college expenses.

In 2010, Christopher v. Christopher originated in Limestone County after a divorced father asked his wife to help pay for their son’s college costs. A court ordered the mother to pay 25 percent of the costs, and the decision was upheld by the Court of Civil Appeals before it went to the Supreme Court.

With the Supreme Court’s decision, the children of divorced parents must now rely on voluntary parental support from both custodial and non-custodial parents to help cover college expenses such as tuition, room and board and books – similar to the children of non-divorced parents.

In the decision, the Supreme Court overruled Bayliss v. Bayliss, a 1989 case where the court determined the non-custodial parent should help pay the college expenses of a post-minority child — a child who was at least 19, but still unable to support themselves. In Alabama, a child is a minor until age 19.

On Oct. 4, the Alabama Supreme Court stated in its conclusion: "The Bayliss Court failed to recognize the ordinary and common-law definitions of ‘child’ as a minor, did not defer to the Legislature’s designation of the age of majority, and failed to observe the canon of construction that courts cannot supply what a statute omits. Accordingly, we expressly overrule Bayliss."

Auburn attorney Stephanie Pollard said the court reversed one of the state’s most controversial cases regarding family law.

"It doesn’t matter how long and how much time has gone by. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong," she said when summarizing the court’s decision. "It’s is a big deal to practicing attorneys who commonly deal with this."

Stephen Johnson, chairman of the Family Bar Section of the Alabama State Bar Association, wasn’t surprised with the decision.

"…The Bayliss case has been the subject of controversy for the last 24 years," Johnson stated in an email. "Most lawyers that I know whom do domestic appellate work have been looking for the right case to take to the Supreme Court to challenge the Bayliss decision for years.

"What is surprising is that the decision to overturn Bayliss was predicated on statutory interpretation instead of the constitutional argument of equal protection. Christopher v. Christopher is technically a domestic relations case, however, the language of Christopher is long reaching into how our current Alabama Supreme Court is going to view statutory interpretation in the legal system."

What impact it will have on future college students is unknown. The ruling does not affect cases where a final decision has been entered, though it could impact cases that are currently on appeal.

Pollard visited an Auburn University class last week and said approximately one-fourth of the class had a non-custodial parent helping pay college costs.

She said most non-custodial parents want to assist their children when it’s financially possible. However, she said there are instances where the non-custodial parent does not make enough to significantly contribute to their child’s college expenses.

Pollard emphasized that parents can still work out an agreement to help their children cover college costs.

"My hope is that people will do the right thing and put their kids first," she said.

Johnson also said most non-custodial parents already help their children.

"Bayliss was basically a legal mandate that required some parents to pay a designated portion of their child’s undergraduate education. Most parents would do this, if they are capable, without the order. Christopher will only allow the very slim number of parents who would have refused to pay anything for their child’s college expenses to escape this obligation."

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