Family Law Case Review: Sexton v. Sexton

Case: Tricia L. Sexton v. Travis Sexton

by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll  

HELD:  The new statutory amendment that lowers the presumptive child support termination age from 21 to 19 does not apply retroactively.

NOTABLE DICTA: Court of Appeals admonished parents to seek counsel prior to terminating child support payments unilaterally upon a child’s 19th birthday, because doing so is improper to the extent that the support obligation is in the nature of an educational support order that survives the 19th birthday.

HELD: Trial court properly found 19-year-old child to be emancipated, even though she still lived at home with her mother, where she had given birth to a child of her own, receives governmental assistance, and was comporting herself as an adult outside either parent’s care or control.

Mother and Father divorced in 2007 with two children. One of the children, Daughter, acquired a CNA license while in high school and began working at a nursing home. Upon Daughter’s high school graduation in 2010, she enrolled at Ivy Tech. In September 2010, Daughter learned she was pregnant, and shortly thereafter stopped working and stopped attending classes.

In March 2011, several months before Daughter gave birth, Father petitioned to emancipate Daughter. At a hearing several months later, Father testified about Daughter quitting work and classes, and that Daughter had informed him that she refused to see him and that Father would have no relationship with the new grandchild. Daughter testified that she lived with Mother, did not pay rent, and that she had a continuing relationship with her child’s father — who was gainfully employed. Following the hearing, the trial court found Daughter to be emancipated, from which Mother appeals.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals noted that the trial court emancipated Daughter based upon her not being under the care or control of either parent. Case law had developed the additional implied requirements of this statute that it was the child who put him- or herself outside the care and control of the parents, and that the child be self-supporting. Reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals concluded that the facts of the case — Daughter having a child, applying for and receiving governmental assistance, and refusing a relationship with her father — were all decisions “of an adult not under the care or control of either parent.” Thus, the trial court acted within its discretion to emancipate Daughter.

Father raised the issue of asking that the new statute that lowers the presumptive age at which child support terminates from 21 to 19 be applied retroactively, thereby entitling him to a credit for his child support paid after Daughter turned 19. However, the Court of Appeals indicated that there was no indication that the legislature intended the statute amendment to apply retroactively, and thus rejected Father’s argument.

In dicta, the Court of Appeals also observed that some existing child support orders may be partially or fully in the nature of educational support orders, without expressly reciting so. Thus, support obligors were encouraged to seek counsel to review the issue prior to unilaterally terminating support payments upon a child’s 19th birthday.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click: Tricia L. Sexton v. Travis Sexton

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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