Child support does not automatically terminate when your child reaches the age of 18. On the contrary, by statute, child support may be ordered for a child between the ages of 18 and 21 if that child primarily resides with one parent and is principally dependent on that parent for his or her support. Similarly, child support may be ordered for a child between the ages of 21 and 23 if that child primarily resides with a parent and is principally dependent on that parent due to enrollment in an educational program, provided the education program is not beyond an undergraduate degree. Under certain circumstances, the court can also order post-minority support for a physically or mentally incapacitated adult child over the age of 18 if that child is incapable of supporting him or herself.
Many, if not all, Massachusetts divorce separation agreements reflexively include “boilerplate” emancipation clauses that reiterate much of the same statutory requirements mentioned above. Most separation agreements also identify other circumstances that trigger a child’s emancipation (the age at which a parent is no longer required to financially support a child) such as a child getting married, entering full-time military service, or becoming financially independent of parental support by reason of employment. Many agreements also recognize that a child previously determined to be emancipated can become unemancipated under certain circumstances.
For children over the age of 18, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines formula automatically reduces the presumptive child support amount by 25 percent recognizing that children in this age group are often living away at college for part of the year, thereby reducing some household expenses, and/or defraying some of their own personal expenses through employment. However, a child who turns 18 while still in high school is considered to be under the age 18 for the purposes of calculating child support.
When determining whether or not to order a parent to pay child support for a child over the age of 18, the Court must consider the following factors: the reason for the child’s continued residence with and principal dependence on the support recipient parent; the child’s academic circumstances; the child’s living situation; the available resources of each parent; and each parent’s contribution towards the cost of post-secondary education for the child and any other children of the family. The court may also consider any other factor it deems relevant.
If you believe your child is emancipated, start by carefully reviewing the emancipation terms of your separation agreement. A parent cannot unilaterally stop paying child support without court approval and/or an agreement between the parents terminating support. Any such agreement should be carefully memorialized and filed with the court and incorporated into a judgment. If you do unilaterally stop paying child support, you could be found in contempt of court.
Even if your child is not emancipated when he or she turns 18, you should review the child support you pay or receive with an experienced domestic relations attorney to make sure it is appropriate given your child’s changing circumstances and your current financial situation.
Article by Attorney Brian T. Salisbury
Attorney Brian Salisbury’s practice includes all aspects of divorce and family law, as well as probate and trust litigation. His family law practice includes high-net worth, complex divorces as well as child custody disputes, child support and alimony actions, paternity actions, appeals, and actions for modification and contempt. Attorney Salisbury is also a trained Mediator, Category V Parent Coordinator, and a Court appointed Category F Guardian ad Litem investigator.
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