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In Re Marriage of Nelia C. Chee

July 22, 2011


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 08 D 31210 Honorable Veronica B. Mathein, Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McBRIDE

2011 IL App (1st) 102797

JUSTICE McBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Garcia and Justice Cahill concurred in the judgment and opinion.


¶ 1 The issue on appeal is whether, under section 513(a)(2) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act, a court has authority to adjudicate a petition to share a child's undergraduate school expenses, even if the petition is filed after the child has graduated. 750 ILCS 5/513(a)(2) (West 2008) (Marriage Act). The Marriage Act states in relevant part, "The authority under this Section to make provision for educational expenses, except where the child is mentally or physically disabled and not otherwise emancipated, terminates when the child receives a baccalaureate degree." 750 ILCS 5/513(a)(2) (West 2008). The circuit court of Cook County construed this language to require dismissal of Nelia C. Chee's petition to allocate college expenses of the two children she had with Samuel V. Chee, on grounds that the children's baccalaureate degrees predated Nelia's petition. Nelia appeals, contending the statute actually precludes the award of expenses incurred for post-baccalaureate education, such as continuing studies or pursuing a second degree, and that her petition for the children's baccalaureate expenses was timely.

¶ 2 Nelia first petitioned the circuit court on December 4, 2008, when she was 54 years old, for dissolution of her 24-year marriage to Samuel, who was then 52. Samuel responded, however, that he was never legally married to Nelia, because two months before their wedding ceremony in Los Angeles, California, on October 29, 1984, he married Merlinda C. Casugay (Chee) in Malolos City, Philippines; that he was still married to Merlinda and residing with her in Pomona, California; and that his bigamous marriage should be declared null and void. Section 212 of the Marriage Act prohibits marriage prior to the dissolution of an earlier marriage of one of the parties. 750 ILCS 5/212(a)(1) (West 2008). According to section 301, a court shall enter a judgment declaring the invalidity of any marriage which is prohibited. 750 ILCS 5/301 (West 2008). Section 305 provides that a person who has gone through a marriage ceremony and cohabited with another to whom he is not legally married in the good-faith belief that he was married to that person is a putative spouse with rights of a legal spouse, such as maintenance. 750 ILCS 5/305 (West 2008). He acknowledged that while he and Nelia were purportedly married to each other, they purchased a condominium unit in Prospect Heights, Illinois, and had a son on October 5, 1985, and a daughter on November 28, 1986.

¶ 3 Nelia next filed a motion for summary judgment (735 ILCS 5/2-1005(a) (West 2008)), in which she asked the court to either dissolve the marriage or declare it void, but, regardless, to "hold respondent responsible for one third of all past, current, and future educational expenses of the children under 750 ILCS 5/513 (a)(2) [(West 2008)]." After hearing arguments on May 5, 2010, the trial judge entered a written order which did not expressly grant or deny Nelia's motion for summary judgment. The order, which was hand drafted by Samuel's attorney, indicates that the court found the marriage void, that Samuel acknowledged paternity of the two children, and that the court was retaining jurisdiction "over the petitioner and the children and the respondent pursuant to the Illinois Parentage Act and 750 ILCS 5/513 [(West 2008)]," which is the section of the Marriage Act which authorizes the trial court to allocate educational expenses for unemancipated children who have attained the age of majority.*fn1 The Marriage Act refers to the award of educational expenses as a form of child "support." 750 ILCS 513(a) (West 2008).

¶ 4 A few weeks later, on June 1, 2010, Nelia filed the petition currently at issue, which was entitled, "Petition for Section 513 College Support" and requested one-third of the children's college expenses. Nelia and Samuel's son had been awarded a bachelor's degree in finance and marketing from Loyola University Chicago in May 2008, which was before Nelia filed for divorce in December 2008, and their daughter completed a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the same institution in May 2009. Neither child received any financial contribution from Samuel toward his or her college expenses.

¶ 5 In a motion to dismiss the support petition pursuant to 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2008)), Samuel argued that the Marriage Act should be construed as depriving the trial court of authority to adjudicate educational expenses as soon as each child graduated from Loyola. The judge granted Samuel's motion and denied Nelia's motion to reconsider the ruling.

¶ 6 Nelia contends that when properly construed, the statute is applied in parentage and marital dissolution cases such as this one and allows the court to order parents and their children, as equity dictates, to share the costs of the children's undergraduate education or equivalent occupational training. She argues it makes no sense to strip the trial court of authority to award educational expenses the moment an undergraduate diploma is in hand. Instead, the legislature's intent in enacting this statute was to preclude the award of expenses beyond a basic college degree unless the child is physically or mentally disabled and not otherwise emancipated. She asks us to reverse the dismissal of her expense petition and remand the matter so that, in its discretion, the trial court may order the parties to share the expense of providing their son and daughter with adequate schooling. Samuel responds that if the legislature intended to preclude awards for graduate or other advanced schooling, it would have expressly said so, and that Nelia has added her own terms and conditions to the legislature's plain wording. He contends the patent absurdity of Nelia's interpretation is revealed by the fact that a parent could pursue educational expenses 50 years after a child received a degree, as long as the petition was limited to undergraduate expenses. Samuel contends the trial court reached the right conclusion and must be affirmed.

¶ 7 Statutory interpretation is a question of law and we address questions of law de novo on appeal. In re Marriage of Kates, 198 Ill. 2d 156, 163, 761 N.E.2d 153, 157 (2001). In interpreting statutes, a court's primary goal is to ascertain and give effect to the true intent of the legislature, and the best indicator of that intent is considered to be the statutory language, when given its ordinary and plain meaning. Kates, 198 Ill. 2d at 163, 761 N.E.2d at 157. When a statute is clear and unambiguous, the legislative intent that is discernible from this language must prevail, and no resort to other interpretive aids is necessary. Kates, 198 Ill. 2d at 163, 761 N.E.2d at 157. However, if a statute is capable of being understood by reasonably well-informed persons in two different ways, it is ambiguous, and a court may resort to other aids of construction, such as considering the consequences that would result in construing the statute one way or the other. Landis v. Marc Realty, L.L.C., 235 Ill. 2d 1, 11-12, 919 N.E.2d 300, 306 (2009); In re Marriage of Logston, 103 Ill. 2d 266, 284, 469 N.E.2d 167, 174 (1984) (where a statute is ambiguous, courts may examine legislative history, related legislation, and the future consequences that would result from adopting one interpretation over another). Statutes must be read as a whole with all relevant parts considered, and they should be construed, if possible, so that no term is rendered superfluous or meaningless. Kates, 198 Ill. 2d at 163, 761 N.E.2d at 157.

¶ 8 As general rule, a parent's duty to support a child ends when the child reaches the age of majority. In re Marriage of Truhlar, 404 Ill. App. 3d 176, 180, 935 N.E.2d 1199, 1203 (2010). However, during the latter part of this century, as a college education or equivalent specialized schooling became increasingly necessary to prepare children for self-sufficiency, divorce courts began routinely allocating college expenses for children who had attained the age of majority, pursuant to the judiciary's general authority to order child support. Truhlar, 404 Ill. App. 3d at 180-81, 935 N.E.2d at 1202-03 (surveying authority, including Davis v. Davis, 268 N.W.2d 769, 778 (N.D. 1978), which stated in 1978 that there is an "increasing necessity of a college education or its equivalent"); Strom v. Strom, 13 Ill. App. 2d 354, 367, 142 N.E.2d 172, 179 (1957) (stating in 1957 that a parent's obligation includes provision of "not only care and bare necessities but also a college education, where it appears desirable in order to better equip the child for adult life"); Esteb v. Esteb, 244 P. 264, 267 (Wash. 1926) ("It cannot be doubted that the minor who is unable to secure a college education is generally handicapped in pursuing most of the trades or professions of life, for most of those with whom he is required to compete will be possessed of that greater skill and ability which comes from such an education.").

¶ 9 The legislature codified the common law and specified in section 513 that "[t]he authority under this Section [of the Marriage Act] to make provision for educational expenses" of the child or the children of the parties extends to "college education or professional or other training after graduation from high school." 750 ILCS 5/513(a)(2) (West 2008). Permissible "educational expenses may include, but shall not be limited to, room, board, dues, tuition, transportation, books, fees, registration and application costs, medical expenses including medical insurance, dental expenses, and living expenses during the school year and periods of recess." 750 ILCS 5/513(a)(2) (West 2008). Section 513 educational expenses are considered a form of child support. Petersen v. Petersen, 403 Ill. App. 3d 839, 844, 932 N.E.2d 1184, 1188 (2010).

ΒΆ 10 No comparable statute has been created for families that remain intact, which the supreme court ...

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