Christopher v. Christopher (In re Christopher.)

Decision Date04 October 2013
Docket Number1120387.
Citation145 So.3d 60
PartiesEx parte Carolyn Sue CHRISTOPHER. (In re Carolyn Sue Christopher v. Charles Phillip Christopher).
CourtAlabama Supreme Court


Kimberly Griffin Kervin, Prattville; and Kelly Tipton Lee, Prattville, for petitioner.

Anne G. Burrows of Hand Arendall LLC, Athens, for respondent.

MOORE, Chief Justice.

Carolyn Sue Christopher (“Carolyn”) petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari to review the judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals affirming an order requiring her to pay postminority educational support on behalf of her child, C.C. See Christopher v. Christopher, 145 So.3d 42 (Ala.Civ.App.2012). In Ex parte Bayliss, 550 So.2d 986 (Ala.1989), this Court interpreted § 30–3–1, Ala.Code 1975, as authorizing a trial court in a divorce proceeding to require a noncustodial parent to pay college expenses for children past the age of majority. We granted Carolyn's petition to consider whether Bayliss was correctly decided, and we now reverse and remand.

I. Procedural History

Carolyn and her husband, Charles Phillip Christopher (“Phillip”), were divorced by a judgment of the trial court in 2010. At the time of the divorce they had one adult child and two children under the age of majority, a son C.C. and a daughter Ca.C. On April 18, 2011, four days before C.C.'s 19th birthday, Phillip petitioned the trial court to order Carolyn to pay a portion of C.C.'s college expenses. Carolyn answered that she was financially unable to contribute to C.C.'s college education and that this Court's holding in Bayliss authorizing awards of postminority educational support was unconstitutional.

After a trial, the court entered a judgment requiring Carolyn to pay 25% of C.C.'s college expenses of $9,435 per semester. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the college-expense award as a proper exercise of the trial court's discretion under Bayliss. Finding that Bayliss, as Supreme Court precedent, was binding, the Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment, denying Carolyn's constitutional challenge.1

II. Standard of Review

The issue in this appeal is whether the Bayliss Court correctly interpreted Alabama law to authorize a trial court to award postminority educational support when application is made before the child attains the age of majority. [O]n appeal, the ruling on a question of law carries no presumption of correctness, and this Court's review is de novo. Ex parte Graham, 702 So.2d 1215, 1221 (Ala.1997). “The fundamental rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature in enacting the statute.” IMED Corp. v. Systems Eng'g Assocs. Corp., 602 So.2d 344, 346 (Ala.1992).

III. Analysis
A. The meaning of the term “child” as a minor

The Alabama child-custody statute is functionally unchanged from its origin in 1852. “Upon granting a divorce, the court may give the custody and education of the children of the marriage to either father or mother, as may seem right and proper....” § 30–3–1, Ala.Code 1975. The statute neither defines “children” nor designates when a child becomes an adult and thus ineligible for parental support.

“When interpreting a statute, a court must first give effect to the intent of the legislature....


“... To discern the legislative intent, the Court must first look to the language of the statute. If, giving the statutory language its plain and ordinary meaning, we conclude that the language is unambiguous, there is no room for judicial construction.”

City of Bessemer v. McClain, 957 So.2d 1061, 1074 (Ala.2006).

The “plain and ordinary meaning” of statutory language may often be found in a dictionary. “What is a dictionary definition if not an assertion of that very meaning that an ordinary person would give a particular word?” Carpet Installation & Supplies of Glenco v. Alfa Mut. Ins. Co., 628 So.2d 560, 562 (Ala.1993). See 3A Norman J. Singer & J.D. Shambie Singer, Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction § 69:9 (7th ed. 2007) (hereinafter Sutherland” ) (“When the legislature has chosen not to define a word, the ‘plain and ordinary meaning’ can be ascertained from a dictionary.”). The term “children” in § 30–3–1, referring to giving “the custody and education of the children of the marriage to either father or mother appears in the context of the parent-child relationship. The “parent-child relationship,” according to a leading legal dictionary, is [t]he association between an adult and a minor in the adult's care, esp. an offspring or an adoptee. The relationship imposes a high duty of care on the adult, including the duties to support, to rescue, to supervise and control, and to educate.” Black's Law Dictionary 1402 (9th ed. 2009). The dictionary not only defines “child” in the parent-child context as a minor, but also refers to the fact of custody (“in the adult's care”) and to the responsibility of the parent to “educate,” both of which § 30–3–1 expressly addresses. Therefore, the plain meaning of “children” as that term is used in § 30–3–1 unambiguously means “minors.” See also Black's Law Dictionary, at 271 (primarily defining “child” as [a] person under the age of majority”).2 Compare Smith v. Smith, 433 Mich. 606, 612, 447 N.W.2d 715, 716 (1989) (consulting Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1985) to shed light on the meaning of “child” in a child-custody statute).

As further confirmation that the phrase “children of the marriage” refers to minors, we may look to the definition of “child” under the common law as applied in divorce proceedings. Customarily, “the [child-support] statute has been construed in aid of the common law and the original jurisdiction of equity for the protection, education, and well-being of the helpless infants that are drawn within the jurisdiction of the courts in such unfortunate controversies between parents....” Ex parte State ex rel. Tissier, 214 Ala. 219, 220, 106 So. 866, 867 (1925) (construing § 7422, Ala.Code 1923 (emphasis added)). “These provisions of the statute in some respects are declaratory of the common law, and the original jurisdiction of the chancery court over infants has been held unimpaired thereby.” Id.

[S]tatutes [in derogation or modification of the common law] are presumed not to alter the common law in any way not expressly declared.” Arnold v. State, 353 So.2d 524, 526 (Ala.1977). See also Dennis v. State, 40 Ala.App. 182, 185, 111 So.2d 21, 24 (1959) (noting “a rule of statutory construction that statutes should be construed in reference to the principles of the common law”); Weaver v. Hollis, 247 Ala. 57, 60, 22 So.2d 525, 528 (1945) (noting that statutes must be read “in the light of the common law”); Standard Oil Co. v. City of Birmingham, 202 Ala. 97, 98, 79 So. 489, 490 (1918) ([C]ommon-law words [are to be construed] according to their common-law meaning.”); Cook v. Meyer Bros., 73 Ala. 580, 583 (1883) ([T]he common law prevails, save so far as it is expressly or by necessary implication changed by the statute.”); 2B Sutherland § 50:3 (noting that statutes “should not be considered to make any innovation upon common law which the statute does not fairly express”); 3A Sutherland § 69:9 (“When a term is not statutorily defined, courts presume the legislature retained the common-law meaning.”); Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 320 (2012) (“The age-old principle is that words undefined in a statute are to be interpreted and applied according to their common-law meanings.”).

At common law the parental-support obligation ceased at the age of majority. “A father is bound, by the common law, to support and educate his children during their minority....” Beasley v. Watson, 41 Ala. 234, 240 (1867) (emphasis added). See also Coleman v. Coleman, 198 Ala. 225, 226, 73 So. 473, 474 (1916) (“A court of chancery has jurisdiction over the custody of infant children....” (referring to § 3808, Ala.Code 1907, a predecessor to § 30–3–1 (emphasis added))); Alston v. Alston, 34 Ala. 15, 27 (1859) ([T]he father is bound to support his minor children....” (emphasis added)); Hansford v. Hansford, 10 Ala. 561, 563 (1846) ([W]hen the jurisdiction of the chancellor was extended to divorce cases, the power to dispose of the minor children was a necessary incident of this jurisdiction.” (emphasis added)); Godfrey v. Hays, 6 Ala. 501, 502 (1844) (noting “the obligation of the father to support his children during minority (emphasis added)).

Before the 1980s, this Court uniformly defined “child” in the context of divorce as a minor. See, e.g., Hutton v. Hutton, 284 Ala. 91, 222 So.2d 348 (1969) (noting that the obligation to make child-support payments ceases at the age of majority); Reynolds v. Reynolds, 274 Ala. 477, 479, 149 So.2d 770, 771 (1961) (“The general rules of parent and child ... ordinarily apply only while the child is under the age of majority.”); Murrah v. Bailes, 255 Ala. 178, 180, 50 So.2d 735, 736 (1951) (stating that child-support statutes relating to divorce or separation “clearly apply only to minor children”).

B. Departing from the ordinary and common-law meaning of “child”

In 1983 this Court recognized an exception to the ordinary and common-law definition of “child” as a minor in favor of a “majority trend” in courts of other states to require a noncustodial parent to support a disabled child past the age of majority. Ex parte Brewington, 445 So.2d 294, 296 (Ala.1983) (affirming an order requiring support payments past the age of majority for a child suffering from a birth defect and permanently confined to a wheelchair). Finding the “narrow interpretation” of the term “children” as minors to be “unacceptable,” the Court stated: [W]e believe the legislature intended that support be provided for dependent children....” Id. See Fincham v. Levin, 155 So.2d 883, 884 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1963) (finding that “most jurisdictions hold that where a child is of weak body or...

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