MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday ordered an end to a 24-year-old practice where judges ordered divorced parents who don’t live with their children to pay college costs for the children after they turned 19.
In a 6-2 decision, the justices said that Alabama’s “child-support statute does not authorize a court to require a noncustodial parent to pay educational support for children over the age of 19.”
One of the winning attorneys, Kim Kervin of Prattville, said, “It’s going to impact practically every divorce case that comes through the courts in Alabama.”
The majority decision written by Chief Justice Roy Moore said that before the 1980s, Alabama courts held that child support obligations ended when a child reached the age of majority, where state law deems them responsible for their themselves rather than their parents being responsible. That age is 19 in Alabama.
In most states, that age is 18. Alabama’s age was 21 until the Legislature changed it to 19 in 1975.
A big change came in 1989 when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled a judge could require a noncustodial parent to pay college expenses for children who had passed the age of majority. Moore’s majority decision said there is nothing in state law to support that 1989 ruling. He wrote that Friday’s decision returns to the Legislature the power to decide if a divorced parent should pay college expenses after a child turns 19.
The Supreme Court said its ruling Friday will not undo court orders for college support that are already final, but it will apply to pending and future cases.
Another winning attorney, Kelly Lee of Prattville, said child support payments have traditionally ended when an offspring turned 19. She and Kervin said only a few states required noncustodial parents to pay college expenses after a child became an adult.
Losing attorney Anne Burrows of Athens declined comment.
Friday’s ruling came in a 2010 divorce of a Limestone County couple. The judge ordered the mother to pay 25 percent of her son’s college expenses, which were $9,435 per semester. She challenged the order, saying she was financially unable to pay it.
The Alabama Civil Appeals upheld the order based on the Supreme Court’s 1989 precedent. That prompted the appeal to the Supreme Court and Friday’s ruling.
Justices Glenn Murdock and Greg Shaw dissented. Shaw wrote that Alabama’s child custody law refers to “children of the marriage,” and both the adult children of married parents and the minor children are “the children of the marriage.” He said the son of the Limestone County couple remains one the “children of the marriage” even after becoming an adult.