All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for February 2004

Court says father met obligations

He doesn't have to support ill daughter

January 1, 2004
AnneMarie Timmins
Concord Monitor

The Supreme Court has overturned a lower court's decision and found that a Belmont man cannot be forced to pay child support for his disabled adult daughter because she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after she turned 18.

The father, Robert Jacobson, asked the high court to intervene last year, after Belknap County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler ordered him to resume child support payments. His daughter, Corrine, showed signs of illness before she legally became an adult at 18, but she was not diagnosed until three months after her 18th birthday.

The justices voted 3-2 to overturn Smukler's order.

The majority cited state law that says a parent can be ordered to continue paying child support payments for disabled adult children only if the parent is already paying support when the child is diagnosed. In Jacobson's case, Corrine was not diagnosed until after turning 18, which is when Jacobson's support obligation ended.

The court, however, said Corrine, 21, and her mother, Kathleen Tierney, both of Maryland, may find recourse elsewhere. Justices cited a different state statute that could allow Tierney to legally request support for her disabled adult daughter.

Tierney, who represented herself at the Supreme Court, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Jacobson's lawyer, Michael Gould of Meredith, said Jacobson had honored his child support obligations until both his daughters, Corrine and Danielle, graduated from high school. Gould declined to explain why Jacobson is opposed to continuing supporting his disabled daughter and instead referred calls to Jacobson.

Jacobson did not return a phone call yesterday.

Tierney and Jacobson were never married and separated about 15 years ago when their daughters were young, Gould said. The girls remained with their mother in Maryland, he said, with financial support from their father.

At 17, Corrine lost vision in her left eye, a manifestation of her multiple sclerosis. Three months after turning 18, doctors diagnosed her with the disease. Tierney asked the court to force Jacobson to resume his child support for Corrine after she graduated from high school.

Smulker heard the case and ruled in December 2002 that Corrine could not live as an "emancipated adult." He cited state law that allows child support to be continued beyond age 18 in certain circumstances.

The majority of justices reversed the decision after finding that Smulker had resumed, not just continued, Jacobson's support obligation.

In their dissenting opinion, justices Joseph Nadeau and James Duggan argued that the Supreme Court had previously upheld orders requiring parents to support children after age 18 if they were in college. They also noted that trial judges should be allowed the discretion to decide when an adult child warrants more child support.

"We are aware that interpreting (state law) to permit support for an adult disabled child could lead to assertion that an elderly parent should be required to pay support for a child who becomes disabled well beyond emancipation," Nadeau and Duggan wrote. "This court, however, decides actual cases, not hypothetical ones."

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