COLUMBIA — A single mother running a daycare and raising two sons won a South Carolina Supreme Court case Wednesday that could require divorced parents who pay child support to also pay for their children to go to college.
Kristi McLeod said she had to stop by her lawyer’s office Wednesday to make sure she heard correctly that justices voted 3-2 in her favor. They ruled that a college education is critical to success in today’s world and that the state has an interest in alleviating the disadvantages facing children of divorce.
“This is such a big deal not just for her, but for every child of divorce in this state,” said attorney Jean Derrick, who celebrated the victory in the 5-year-old case with hugs and tears with her client.
McLeod and her husband divorced in 1993. While his income rose from $29,000 the year the family broke up to almost $250,000 a year by 2008, child support for Kristi McLeod stayed at $175 a week for the two children. She ran a daycare in Pelion and made no more than $40,000 a year, according to court records.
When McLeod’s older son decided to go to Newberry College in 2006, his father agreed in an e-mail to repay student loans and pick up any odd expenses. He also told his son to call if he needed a little help. In the same letter, the father decided on his own to reduce child support payments for his other son to $100 a week, the justices said.
“The help was really important to him,” McLeod said of her older son. “He was working so hard to get good grades to keep his scholarships and grants. But they just weren’t enough.”
The father didn’t keep up his end of the bargain, so McLeod sued. A Family Court judge ruled in the father’s favor, saying he wasn’t required to pay college costs. The lower court also reduced how much support McLeod collected and refused to require her ex-husband to pay her attorney. But the state Supreme Court took up the case, reversed all the previous rulings and used the case to reverse a decision it made in 2010.
“Although the decision to send a child to college may be a personal one, it is not one we wish to foreclose to a child simply because his parents are divorced,” Justice Kay Hearn wrote in her ruling.
The older son graduated from Fairmont State University in West Virginia last year and is a fingerprint analyst at the FBI. McLeod’s younger son has autism, so child support is continuing for him, Derrick said.
The lawyer for the father, J. Mark Taylor, didn’t return a phone message.
Two justices disagreed with the ruling. Justice Don Beatty wrote a dissent, saying state law on child support specifically mentions paying support until a child is finished with high school, but doesn’t mention college at all.
He said the idea of making parents pay for college was noble, but the justices should not legislate from the bench.
“Had the Legislature intended for a parent to pay college expenses as an incident of continuing child support, I believe it would have specifically included the phrase ‘college graduation,’” Beatty wrote.
The Supreme Court ruling suggested not every parent who pays child support will also be on the hook for college expenses. But in her opinion, Hearn seemed especially annoyed at the father, pointing out he gave no reason beyond the court’s earlier decision for backing down from his e-mail offer to pay for his son’s college education. She suggested that sometimes the acrimony of a marriage gone sour and divorce could impact a parent’s normal sense of obligation to doing what they can for their children.
“What other reason could there be for a father with more than adequate means and a son who truly desires to attend college to skirt the obligation the father almost certainly would have assumed had he not divorced the child’s mother?” Hearn wrote.
McLeod looks at the ruling as a victory for children around the state, including some of the dozens in her Lil’ Panther Den daycare who may end up benefiting from the judge’s ruling some 15 years from now.
“Divorces can be so bitter. One parent winds up picking up the slack and the other doesn’t want to help,” McLeod said. “This is important because now judges can at least consider if a parent can and should pay for college.”