421 U.S. 7 (1975), 73-1461, Stanton v. Stanton

Docket Nº:No. 73-1461
Citation:421 U.S. 7, 95 S.Ct. 1373, 43 L.Ed.2d 688
Party Name:Stanton v. Stanton
Case Date:April 15, 1975
Court:United States Supreme Court

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421 U.S. 7 (1975)

95 S.Ct. 1373, 43 L.Ed.2d 688




No. 73-1461

United States Supreme Court

April 15, 1975

Argued February 19, 1975



When appellant wife and appellee husband were divorced in Utah in 1960, the decree, incorporating the parties' stipulation, ordered appellee to make monthly payments to appellant for the support of the parties' children, a daughter, then age seven, and a son, then age five. Subsequently, when the daughter became 18, appellee discontinued payments for her support, and the divorce court, pursuant to a Utah statute which provides that the period of minority for males extends to age 21 and for females to age 18, denied appellant's motion for support of the daughter for the period after she attained 18. On appeal the Utah Supreme Court affirmed, rejecting appellant's contention, inter alia, that the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


1. The support issue is not rendered moot by the fact that appellant and the daughter are now both over 21, since, if appellee is obligated by the divorce decree to support the daughter between ages 18 and 21, there is an amount past due and owing. Nor does appellant lack standing because she is not of the age group affected by the statute; another statute obligates her to support the daughter to age 21. Pp. 11-12.

2. In the context of child support, the classification effectuated by the challenged statute denies the equal protection of the laws, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71. Notwithstanding the "old notions" cited by the state court, that it is the man's primary responsibility to provide a home, that it is salutary for him to have education and training before he assumes that responsibility, and that females tend to mature and marry earlier than males, there is nothing rational in the statutory distinction between males and females which, when related to the divorce decree, results in appellee's liability for support for the daughter only to age 18, but for the son to age 21, thus imposing "criteria wholly unrelated to the objective of that statute." Pp. 13-17.

30 Utah 2d 315, 517 P.2d 1010, reversed and remanded.

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BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and DOUGLAB, BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 18.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the issue whether a state statute specifying for males a greater age of majority than it specifies for females denies, in the context of a parent's obligation for support payments for his children, the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Appellant Thelma B. Stanton and appellee James Lawrence Stanton, Jr., were married at Elko, Nev., in February, 1951. At the suit of the appellant, they were divorced in Utah on November 29, 1960. They have a daughter, Sherri Lyn, born in February, 1953, and a son, Rick Arlund, born in January, 1955. Sherri became 18 on February 12, 1971, and Rick on January 29, 1973.

During the divorce proceedings in the District Court of Salt Lake County, the parties entered into a stipulation as to property, child support, and alimony. The court awarded custody of the children to their mother and incorporated provisions of the stipulation into its findings and conclusions and into its decree of divorce. Specifically, as to alimony and child support, the decree provided:

Defendant is ordered to pay to plaintiff the sum of $300.00 per month as child support and alimony,

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$100.00 per month for each child as child support, and $100.00 per month as alimony, to be paid on or before the 1st day of each month through the office of the Salt Lake County Clerk.

App. 6. The appellant thereafter remarried; the court, pursuant to another stipulation, then modified the decree to relieve the appellee from payment of further alimony. The appellee also later remarried.

When Sherri attained 18, the appellee discontinued payments for her support. In May, 1973, the appellant moved the divorce court for entry of judgment in her favor and against the appellee for, among other things, support for the children for the periods after each respectively attained the age of 18 years. The court concluded that, on February 12, 1971, Sherri

became 18 years of age, and, under the provisions of [§] 15-2-1 Utah Code Annotated 1953, thereby attained her majority. Defendant is not obligated to plaintiff for maintenance and support of Sherri Lyn Stanton since that date.

App. 23. An order denying the appellant's motion was entered accordingly. Id. at 225.

The appellant appealed to the Supreme Court of Utah. She contended, among other things, that Utah Code Ann. 15-2-1 (1953) * to the effect that the period of minority for males extends to age 21 and for females to age 18, is invidiously discriminatory, and serves to deny due process and equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and of the corresponding

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provisions of the Utah Constitution, namely, Art. I, §§ 7 and 24, and Art. IV, § 1. On this issue, the Utah court affirmed. 30 Utah 2d 315, 517 P.2d 1010 (1974). The court acknowledged: "There is no doubt that the questioned statute treats men and women differently," but said that people may be treated differently

so long as there is a reasonable basis for the classification, which is related to the purposes of the act, and it applies equally and uniformly to all persons within the class.

Id. at 318, 517 P.2d at 1012. The court referred to what it called some "old notions," namely, [95 S.Ct. 1376] "that generally it is the man's primary responsibility to provide a home and its essentials," ibid.; that "it is a salutary thing for him to get a good education and/or training before he undertakes those responsibilities," id. at 319, 517 P.2d at 1012; that "girls tend generally to mature physically, emotionally and mentally before boys"; and that "they generally tend to marry earlier," ibid. It concluded:

[I]t is our judgment that there is no basis upon which we would be justified in concluding that the statute is so beyond a reasonable doubt in conflict with constitutional provisions that it should be stricken down as invalid.

Id. at 319, 517 P.2d at 1013. If such a change were desirable, the court said, "that is a matter which should commend itself to the attention of the legislature." Id. at 320, 517 P.2d at 1013. The appellant, thus, was held not entitled to support for Sherri for the period after she attained 18, but was entitled to support for Rick "during his minority" unless otherwise ordered by the trial court. Ibid., 517 P.2d at 1014.

We noted probable jurisdiction. 419 U.S. 893 (1974).

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The appellee initially suggests that the support issue is moot, and that, in any event, the appellant lacks standing. These arguments are related, and we reject both of them.

A. The mootness suggestion is based on the propositions that both the appellant and Sherri are now over 21, and that neither possesses rights that "can be affected by the outcome of this proceeding." Brief for Appellee 9. At the time the case was before us on the jurisdictional statement, the appellee suggested that the case involved a nonjusticiable political question. Appellee's Motion to Dismiss 7. Each approach, of course, overlooks the fact that what is at issue is support for the daughter during her years between 18 and 21. If appellee, under the divorce decree, is obligated for Sherri's support during that period, it is an obligation that has not been fulfilled, and there is an amount past due and owing from the appellee. The obligation issue, then, plainly presents a continuing live case or controversy. It is neither moot nor nonjusticiable.

B. The suggestion as to standing is that the appellant is not of the age group affected by the Utah statute, and that she therefore lacks a personal stake in the resolution of the issue. It is said that, when the appellant signed the stipulation as to support payments, she took the Utah law as it was, and thus waived, or is estopped from asserting, any right to support payments after the daughter attained age 18.

We are satisfied that it makes no difference whether the appellant's interest in any obligation of the appellee, under the divorce decree, for Sherri's support between ages 18 and 21, is regarded as an interest personal to appellant or as that of a fiduciary. The Utah court has described support money as "compensation to a spouse

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for the support of minor children." Anderson v. Anderson, 110 Utah 300, 306, 172 P.2d 132, 135 (1946). And the right to past due support money appears to be the supplying spouse's, not the child's. Larsen v. Larsen, 5 Utah 2d 224, 228, 300 P.2d 596, 598 (1956). See also Baggs v. Anderson, 528 P.2d 141, 143 (Utah 1974). The appellant, therefore, clearly has a

personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions.

Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 204 (1962); Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 102 (1968). We see nothing in the stipulation [95 S.Ct. 1377] itself that is directed to the question when majority is reached for purposes of support payments or that smacks of waiver. In addition, the Uniform Civil Liability for Support Act has been in effect in Utah since 1957. Laws of Utah, 1957, c. 110, now codified as Utah Code Ann. §§ 78-45-1 through 78-45-13 (Supp. 1973). Section 7845-4 specifically provides: "Every woman shall support her child." This is in addition to the mandate contained in § 78-45-3: "Every man...

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