Be Neutral
A Publication of the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution

Case Watch: For Mediators

The following case analysis is part of a regular series we publish to help you broaden your knowledge of rulings of Georgia’s appellate courts that may affect your practice. Remember: mediators should not give legal advice or opinions.        

Review of Draughn v. Draughn, S10-A-1599, S10A1600, decided March 7, 2011, appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court of a ruling by Judge Perry Brannen, Jr., Chatham County Superior Court.

When Does a Child “Attend” Secondary School ?   

The case of Draughn v. Draughn highlights the ever-increasing influence of the Internet on the lives of divorcing parties and their children.  And it is an important ruling that will assist you in helping custodial parents receive child support when their children drop out of a conventional high school.

In Draughn, the child support order obligated the father to support his son financially until the son:         


“reaches the age of eighteen … provided that if the child becomes 18 years old while enrolled in and attending a secondary school on a full time basis, then the child support shall continue for said child until he has graduated from secondary school or reaches the age of twenty, whichever comes first.” 


At trial, the father asserted that his child support obligation had terminated because his 18-year-old son was taking online classes and thus no longer actually “attending” school.  Moreover, the father argued, even if his son had been “attending” school, he wasn’t attending “full time” because he stopped attending between June and August 2009.  One question for the trial court was whether the son could “attend” online classes for the purposes of determining if child support was due.  The trial court agreed with the father, finding that it “does not find that an online class satisfies the requirement of attend as per the agreed upon language in the child support modification clause.”  The court based its ruling in the case, however, on its finding that even if the son was attending school, he was not attending “full time,” as required by the child support order.  Therefore, the court ruled, the father should be released from his obligation to pay child support for his son.       

The Georgia Virtual School     
Of course, the mother appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which took up the trial court’s findings on the father’s two arguments.  On the issue of whether a child could “attend” school by taking online courses, the Georgia Supreme Court made a critical finding – that O.C.G.A. § 20-1-319.1 authorized the Georgia State Board of Education to establish the Georgia Virtual School, whereby students (age 21 or younger) may enroll in state-funded courses via the Internet or in any other manner not involving on-site interaction with a teacher.        

Accordingly, the Supreme Court ruled in Draughn that once a child enrolls in approved online courses in an effort to graduate from secondary school, his online participation constitutes “attending” school for the purposes of extending child support beyond the child’s attainment of the age of majority.  The trial court had erred by finding otherwise, the justices decided. 

“Full-Time” School Attendance           
The Supreme Court then addressed the correctness of the trial court’s finding that the son was not attending school “full time” because he stopped taking online courses from June through August 2009.        

As mediators, we know words affect meaning.  Note that the phrase “full time basis” in the Draughn child support agreement.  One has to wonder whose idea it was to use that language, because it cannot be found in O.C.G.A.
§ 19-6-15 (e), the child support statute:


(e)  Duration of child support responsibility. The duty to provide support for a minor child shall continue until the child reaches the age of majority, dies, marries, or becomes emancipated, whichever first occurs; provided, however, that ... the court, in the exercise of sound discretion, may direct either or both parents to provide financial assistance to a child who has not previously married or become emancipated, who is enrolled in and attending a secondary school, and who has attained the age of majority before completing his or her secondary school education, provided that such financial assistance shall not be required after a child attains 20 years of age.      


The Supreme Court found that neither the statute nor the Draughn agreement required the son’s continuous attendance during the summer months, but rather only his “full time” attendance in school.  The court cited one of its prior rulings to support its finding; In Bullard v. Swafford, 279 Ga. 577, decided in 2005, the court defined “full time student” as requiring “continuous attendance during the normal school year.”  In that case, the requirement that a child be a full-time student did not entail his attendance in school during the summer months of a normal school year.           

Accordingly, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the Draughn trial court erred as a matter of law when it determined that the father’s child support obligation ended simply because the child was not attending school between June 2009 and August 2009 – the summer months of a normal school year.      

One cannot help but question what the decisions would have been if the son had stopped “attending” during the winter, rather the summer months.  And there seems little doubt the justices were basing their ruling on the law’s public policy of enforcing child support payments.  In their opinion, they discuss at length the General Assembly’s recognition of the importance of a child completing a secondary education and the parental responsibility to help a child reach that goal.    

This case recognizes an expanding area that mediators should talk with parties about, particularly in light of the fact that the Georgia Virtual School has been authorized by the Georgia State Board of Education, and in light of the Court’s ruling on public policy in Draughn, which supports online education as a qualifying event for the continuation of child support.      

Also, make sure that the parties know that “secondary education” means high school, not college.  This seems to be a common point of confusion for many parties.   


Mary Ellen Cates is an attorney and registered mediator in Avondale Estates, Ga.  She has practiced domestic law exclusively since 1985.  A divorce mediator since 1998, she is also a domestic arbitrator, and she has been appointed as special master for DeKalb County Superior Court.

Phone: 404-292-3803; fax: 404-292-1510; or