Father Must Pay Child Support for His Troubled, High School Drop-Out Daughter

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When a divorced father tried to terminate the child support obligations he was to provide for his 18-year-old daughter who had dropped out of high school, the trial court ruled in his favor. His wife appealed, and now she and her daughter will be able to keep the funds that were ordered during divorce proceedings.

A three-justice panel of Division One of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed the order by Commissioner Adam Wertheimer of the Superior Court of San Diego County. Justice Martin N. Buchanan authored the unanimous Fourth District opinion that was issued on January 17.

The appellate court ruling is based on its interpretation of the California Family Code, Section 3901 (a) (1) which imposes child support obligations for unmarried children who have reached the age of 18 and who are full-time high school students who are not supporting themselves. In addition, the Code also requires that support continue until the child reaches the age of 19 or completes high school, whichever comes first.

Buchanan first reviewed the terms of the couple’s divorce, which occurred 20 years ago. According to the opinion, the case before the appellate court is the latest in a “long history of protracted, contentious, and seemingly unnecessary litigation.” The mother was given primary custody.

In 2019, the father Brian Giles, referred to in the opinion as B.G., was ordered to pay the mother, referred to as D.H., $10,000 per month to care for their youngest child, referred to as A.G. A.G turned 18 in March 2020 and stopped attending high school in June 2020. Since A.G. dropped out, her father sought orders not only to be allowed to discontinue payments but also to make D.H. give him a $20,000 refund for his “overpaid” support. He also asked for sanctions, which the trial court denied. All other order requests by B.G. were granted. This appeal followed.

D.H. ’s appeal alleges that Commissioner Wertheimer misinterpreted the meaning of the term “full-time” in the Family Code. She also argued that A.G.’s child support should continue due to a “material change in circumstances.” She further claimed that the Commissioner had relied on “unadmitted evidence” and that he improperly shifted the burden of proof from her ex-husband to her.

The opinion quickly explained that the correct interpretation of “full-time,” which governs compulsory education for minor children in the California Family Code, echoes that of the California Education Code, Section 48200. Because Wertheimer did not apply the correct definition, child support must continue. However, all of the mother’s other arguments failed. Since she was the one who supervised A.G.’s enrollment, and since she did not notify B.G. of A.G.’s school changes, it makes sense for her to bear the burden of proof.

Buchanan next gave a history of A.G.’s high school attendance, which began in 2017 when she was 15. She went to school regularly until she was hospitalized for an eating disorder and remained an inpatient until January 2021. D.H. explained that her daughter’s chronic eating disorders were responsible for her non-traditional high school record, which shows attendance at several charter, summer, and adult education schools that A.G. attended to earn credits. She did graduate in the Spring of 2021.

B.G. argued that A.G.’s irregular attendance fell quite short of most schools’ 15-unit requirement for full-time status. D.H. countered that full-time should mean that the student “was on a trajectory” to graduate in four years. The parties argued about when and where A.G. actually attended school, and each disputed the other’s evidence.

The opinion then reviewed each party’s legal arguments. First, B.G. said that he did not want a downward reduction in child support payments, which is common in similar cases. Instead, he claimed that his child support responsibilities had already ended “as a matter of law” (italics in original). The court acknowledged that the Family Code “expressly provides” for this remedy. The mother disputed this provision due to B.G.’s improper filing dates.

Buchanan next turned to the primary issue –the meaning of “full-time.” He wrote that child support ordinarily terminates when a child reaches 18, the age of majority. However, another section of the Family Code says “A child is excused from the requirement to be a full-time high school student… if the child has a medical condition documented by a physician that prevents full-time school attendance.” He noted that full-time generally means “the length of the school day (determined) by the governing board of the school district where the child’s parent or legal guardian resides.”

The opinion then reviewed the legislation that led to the enactment of the law in order to discover the lawmakers’ intent. The court concluded that the purpose of the Family Code is to “ensure that parents support their children until the child has had an opportunity to complete a high school education.” The Justice concluded that this could not be achieved by requiring a specific number of credits rather than by complying with school board requirements for the length of a school day and recognizing the need to consider “exemptions from compulsory education, valid excused absences, and alternate schedules in settings such as continuation schools.”

This led to a statement that “courts should not be so rigid in applying the “full-time standard.” Instead there should be “flexibility in accounting for the many individual circumstances students face.” As a result, the case was remanded “for application of the . . . test formulated…to the facts of this case.”

The court’s opinion is one of first impression. Buchanan said, “Without any case law to guide them the parties litigated the matter and the trial court decided it based on an incorrect definition of the term full-time.” Hopefully, this opinion will assist children who might be struggling to complete high school. That’s what the legislature wanted.

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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