Thursday, October 17, 2013
Reversing 24-year old precedent, the Alabama Supreme Court held earlier this month that Alabama law does not authorize courts to order parents to pay postminority educational expenses. The case is Ex Parte Christopher, No. 1120386 (Ala. October 4, 2013).
In Ex Parte Bayliss, 550 So.2d 986 (Ala. 1989), the court interpreted an Alabama statute to allow a divorce court to order a noncustodial parent to pay a child's college expenses. The statute reads:
Upon granting a divorce, the court may give the custody and education of the children of the marriage to either father or mother, as may seem right and proper...
Christopher turned on the meaning of "children of the marriage" and the court's obligation to follow stare decisis. The court looked to the common law and dictionary definitions of "children," which is not a defined term in the statute, to conclude the phrase refers to minors. The court noted that interpreting the term "children" to include adults would lead to the "absurd and unjust" result of court "assign[ing] custody of the adult children of a marriage to one of the divorcing parties."
Regarding stare decisis, the court wrote:
By departing from settled precedent on the meaing of the term "children" in [the statute] and expressly overturing eight cases that conformed to that precedent, the Bayliss court indeed "unsettled" the law. The question arises whether we are bound by the principle of stare decisis to follow Bayliss, even though that opinion itself repudiated that principle. We are not so constrained.
The majority determined that the court erred in Bayliss and the court had an obligation to correct the error.
Two justices dissented in separate opinions in a lengthy decision including six opinions and 74 pages. One dissenting justice, citing the acquiescence principle, observed that in the 24 subsequent years, the Alabama legislature had not statitutorily overturned Bayliss. The justice finds this fact to be an instructive interpretive benchmark.
The states are divided on this issue with some providing no discretion for courts to order parents to support or educate nonminority children, e.g., Curtis v. Kline, 666 A.2d 265 (Pa. 1995) (no duty to support postminority children), others providing for the duty to pay educational expenses to age 21, e.g., Utah Code Ann. sec. 15-2-1, and still others giving courts authority to do so without regard to age, e.g., Donarski v. Donarski, 581 N.W.2d 130 (N.D. 1998) (postminority support is limited and based upon case circumstances).