Indiana’s Appellate Court Issues Controversial Opinion in Emancipation Case

Indiana’s Court of Appeals issued a surprising opinion on what statute defines as “enrolled” in college. The opinion was not unanimous, with one judge issuing a separate opinion that he believes the majority wrongly reweighed evidence in this case. The controversial opinion will likely create some new dilemmas for family law practitioners, as they advise clients on the criteria needed for emancipation cases.

The case is Annette (Oliver) Hirsch v. Roger Lee Oliver, No. 29A02-1004-DR-429, which originated in Hamilton Superior Court when the parties divorced in 1994. The parties had married in 1985 and had three children. The father contributed to child support and the two oldest children were eventually emancipated by the court.

The issues in this case center on the youngest daughter, who was born in 1990 and graduated from high school in 2009. Father petitioned to emancipate daughter later that year after she withdrew from college courses less than two weeks after starting classes. Daughter moved back in with her mother and stepfather and started working part-time. The hearing on Father’s emancipation petition was continued a few months from the original October 2010 date and daughter subsequently moved and rented an apartment.

At the hearing, the trial court determined that the daughter as emancipated as of the September 2009 date father filed the petition. Although daughter had started attending classes again, the court ruled that father wasn’t obligated to contribute toward her college expenses.

Mother appealed the trial court’s order and the Court of Appeals found that the lower court had erred on erred on the emancipation date, because the daughter was considered “enrolled” in college as of September 2009 pursuant to Indiana Code 31-16-6-6. Known as the “emancipation statute”, the provision specifies that a child is eligible for emancipation if he or she is at least 18, isn’t enrolled in secondary or post-secondary school, and is capable of supporting oneself through employment. Based upon that definition, the COA Judges Michael Barnes and Nancy Vaidik found that the trial court should have determined the daughter was enrolled in college, regardless of whether she was completing courses. Further, majority determined that daughter wasn’t capable of supporting herself despite her part-time job. Specifically, the COA noted this state’s public policy clearly requires continued child support payment until the child is no longer in actual need of that support and that in this case, the daughter lacked sufficient income or skills to support herself.

COA Judge John Baker disagreed with the majority opinion, stating that the relevant statute doesn’t define what it means to be “enrolled” in classes. Judge Baker wrote that the definition that was reached in Butrum v. Roman, 803 N.E. 2d 1139, 1145 (Ind. Ct. App. 2004) sometimes doesn’t go far enough, and this is one of those cases.

“Accepting such a broad definition of the term means that a student could conceivably be ‘enrolled’ in a postsecondary educational institute in perpetuity without ever actually taking classes,” he wrote, adding that he’d expand the statutory interpretation to mean one must also in good faith be attending or intending to attend classes.

Judge Baker also disagreed with Judges Barnes and Vaidik reweighing the daughter’s credibility on employment history and college courses. “I believe that by reversing on this issue, the majority is necessarily reweighing the evidence,” he wrote.

The appellate court also determined the lower judge incorrectly calculated child support amounts and attorney fees. It remanded on those issues.

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