Wednesday, April 23, 2008
C.A. Rules Support Formula Inapplicable When Child Goes to College
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
California’s statutory guidelines for calculating child support do not apply to a support obligation extending beyond the age of majority if the child has left for college, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Reversing the decision of Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Marshall Rieger, Div. Three held that application of the formula to calculate support “would be unjust or inappropriate” where a child who has become a competent adult leaves for college because neither parent retains “primary physical responsibility” for the child—a key component of the formula.
The matter arose after Oscar L. Edwards agreed in a marital settlement agreement to pay his ex-wife, Sharon R. Edwards, $200 per month in child support for their son, Oscar Edwards Jr., until the child married, died, became self-supporting, emancipated, reached the age of 25, or completed four years of college. The agreement also provided that the parties would equally share in the entire cost of books, tuition, incidental fees, and living expenses for Oscar Edwards Jr. if he attended college, and that this obligation would similarly end when he completed four years or college or reached age 25.
The pair had separated in 1986, two years after their son’s birth, and in 1990 the trial court entered a stipulated judgment of dissolution ordering Oscar Edwards to pay the monthly $200 amount. The amount was reset to $400 per month in 1998 pursuant to a stipulated order, and then increased again to $700 the next year after a contested hearing.
In 2003, Oscar Edwards moved to end the support, arguing that the obligation had terminated by operation of law when his son turned 18 and graduated from high school. However, the trial court denied the motion, ruling that there had been no change in the terms of the support order to terminate it prior to Oscar Edwards Jr. reaching 25.
The father appealed, but the Court of Appeal affirmed, ruling he was estopped to challenge the validity of the judgment ordering support until his son became 25 given that Edwards had stipulated to such payments in the first instance.
Meanwhile, after the trial court had denied his motion for termination, Oscar Edwards filed a second motion to modify the obligation based on a change of circumstances,. He alleged that his income had dropped by over 50 percent, that he had two minor children with his current spouse, and that his son was attending a state university in Northern California on a full financial aid package and was no longer in the custody of either parent.
Applying the statutory guideline formula for calculating child support set forth in Family Code Sec. 4055, Rieger ordered the obligation modified to $432 per month.
Under the formula, a child support amount is calculated by multiplying the total net monthly disposable income of both parents by the approximate percentage of time that the high earner has or will have primary physical responsibility compared to the other parent. That amount is then subtracted from the high earner’s net monthly disposable income, and the remainder is multiplied by the amount of both parents’ income to be allocated for child support as set forth further in the statute.
However, Rieger assigned zero percent of time sharing responsibility to Oscar Edwards and 100 percent to Sharon Edwards, even though Oscar Edwards Jr., by that time, had resided in a dormitory and then in an apartment.
Oscar Edwards appealed again, this time arguing that the commissioner abused his discretion in failing to vary from the formula, and the Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, agreed.
Noting that Sec. 4057 provides that the amount of support established by the formula in Sec. 4055 is presumed correct, but that this presumption can be rebutted by evidence that application of the formula would be “unjust or inappropriate” due to “special circumstances in the particular case,” she concluded that the formula was inapplicable because neither parent retained “primary physical responsibility” for Oscar Edwards Jr.
Klein rejected Sharon Edwards’ argument that she continued to have physical responsibility for her son, writing:
“In the instant case, there is nothing in the record to show that Oscar Jr. is anything but a competent adult. The fact Sharon receives mail for Oscar Jr. at her address, that he keeps some of his ‘stuff’ at her home, and that he visits her from time to time, do not support the trial court’s finding that Sharon has ‘primary physical responsibility’… for Oscar Jr. for any percentage of time.”
As a result, Klein concluded, neither parent retained “primary physical responsibility” for any period of time and the guideline formula, by its terms, was inapplicable.
Klein then opined—in an unpublished portion of the opinion—that Sharon Edwards was not entitled to any child support because she contributed less than $70 per month to her son’s expenses, the remainder being met by his financial aid package.
Noting that Sharon Edwards was “obligated under the stipulated judgment to share equally in Oscar [Jr.]’s education expenses and living expenses during his college years,” Klein wrote, “the fact [that] Sharon incurred some expense in contributing toward Oscar Jr.’s college education is not a basis for requiring Oscar to continue to pay child support to [her].”
Justices Patti S. Kitching and Richard D. Aldrich joined Klein in her opinion.
The case is Edwards v. Edwards, B191035.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company