Alabama Supreme Court Ends “Right” to College Life

November 5, 2013
By Michael Polemeni, Chair, Executive Committee, National Parents Organization of Alabama

While everyone was fretting over the Federal shutdown, the Alabama Supreme  Court took the unexpected, but absolutely correct action, of overturning Bayliss v. Bayliss. The Bayliss precedent has been used by courts to provide post-minority support for college. It has become an expected right for the "college life" for Alabama children.

Now, with Bayliss overturned, the choice to provide monies for college is the choice of divorced parents. These parents, just as with the children of non-divorced parents, may add conditions that may be met by their children in order to provide college costs.

It is the first lesson in responsibility for many children to seek funds through scholarships, grants, parents, grandparents, and "God forbid" work. Now all children, whether or not their parents are together, may learn this lesson.

The ruling does not affect cases where a final decision has been rendered. It could impact cases that are currently on appeal.

Lyn Stuart, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Alabama, stated: I concur in the main opinion, and I write specially to further state my reasons for concurring to overrule Ex parte Bayliss, 550 So. 2d 986 (Ala. 1989). I disagreed with this Court's holding in Ex parte Bayliss when it was decided in 1989, while I was serving as a trial court judge. However, cognizant of my role at that time, I recognized Ex parte Bayliss as the law and followed it when called upon to do so."

The Alabama 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. 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.  

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. The decision was upheld by the Court of Civil Appeals before it went to the Supreme Court.

In this 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. In Alabama, a child is a minor until age 19. The child in Christopher v. Christopher was at least 19, but still unable to support themselves.

With the Bayliss decision, the court determined it has a right to assure that the children of divorced parents, who are minors at the time of divorce, are given the same right to a college education before and after they reach the age of 19 years that they probably would have if their parents had not divorced.

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."

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."

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

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