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Duty to Pay Child Support for Adult Children

In most cases, court-ordered child support automatically terminates when the child turns 18 years old unless the child is still a full-time high school student. In that case, child support ends when the child graduates high school or turns 19 years old, whichever is soonest. Child support will also end if a child under the age of 18 is emancipated, married, joins the military, or dies.  

Parents may choose to voluntarily continue to support their children beyond this age, and often they do. As stated above, the general rule states that parents are not required to support their adult children. 

However, there are two major exceptions: (1) written agreements for support of adult children, and (2) adult children with disabilities.


Agreements to support adult children and voluntary contributions

Parents often pay for their kids' college tuition, rent, and other expenses upon graduating from high school. Many adult children continue to reside with a parent well past high school. Providing voluntary support to an adult child does not create an ongoing child support obligation

In some cases, parents agree to continue providing support to adult children. If this agreement is memorialized in a written judgment filed with the court, it becomes an enforceable court order. It is important to note whether the agreement to support adult children is modifiable or not. If the agreement is unclear, a judge may find it is unmodifiable regardless of any change of circumstances.  

Parties to such agreements should spend considerable time contemplating their intentions. If the financial circumstances of parents change, will they still be required to support an adult child? If one parent receives an inheritance, will both parents still be required to support their adult child? If the child receives financial assistance from school or an inheritance, will the parents still be required to support the adult child? 

Parents should also consider any terms or limitations on financial support paid for the benefit of an adult child. For example, many of these agreements list with specificity the type of support a parent is required to give and conditions on that support. 

Commonly parents agree to pay for college tuition and books for up to four years at an “in-state” school provided the child maintains a particular GPA, attends school full-time, and does not have income from outside sources. 

These agreements can be structured in any way the parties agree, but it is important to consider all of the “what ifs” which might make such an agreement feel unfair or untenable in the future.


Support for adult children with disabilities or special needs

A parent may still have an obligation to continue financial support of a child into adulthood, even if no prior agreement was made between the parties.

A parent has a responsibility to support a child of any age “who is incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means.” This language can be found in Family Code section 3910(a); and was reinforced by the California Court of Appeal in a case called Marriage of Drake.

In determining if a child is “incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means” the court will look to the public policy concerns behind the relevant statutes and case law. The purpose is to prevent the public from having to take on the burden of supporting an adult with special needs, especially when their parents are able to do so.

With this policy consideration in mind, the court will weigh whether or not the dependent adult will become a “public charge.”

In order to show that an adult is “incapacitated from earning a living” so that it is likely they will become a “public charge,” there must be proof of a mental or physical disability preventing the child from being able to work; or, at least proof of inability to find a job due to factors beyond the child’s control. This may require testimony from a medical expert and ultimately will be a factual determination made by the court.

Again, this adult support may be enforced or enacted after a divorce, after the child turns 18, and even after a prior child support order has automatically terminated. Family courts will have jurisdiction to hear a request by one parent to pay disabled child support, even after divorce proceedings have completed and the child is over the age of 18.

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Requesting adult child support

California Family Courts do not have jurisdiction to award adult child support or payment of college tuition without a finding that the adult child is “incapacitated from earning a living”. 

However, the court does have the ability to enforce agreements of the parties requiring adult child support payments or help with college expenses. 

If one party to an agreement is refusing to pay child support or college expenses, the other parent may file a motion for enforcement in family court. It is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney to review the agreement and specific terms prior to filing any motion with the court.

A party may request adult child support for a disabled or special needs child at any time. These motions may be brought before the court during a dissolution or parentage action or even long after the case has concluded. If you are a parent struggling to pay for a disabled adult child’s expenses, it is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible.

These types of cases take notoriously long to litigate since the issues are very fact driven and sensitive. If your case qualifies under the appropriate statutes and case law, having a motion on file with the court will preserve your right to retroactive child support.

This means that you could receive adult child support dating back to the filing of the motion, regardless of when the hearing takes place.

If you have an adult child you believe is unable to earn a living, requiring additional or continued support, set up a free 30-minute consultation with an attorney at Cage & Miles, LLP to explore your options.

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