Most states agree that your child has the right to finish secondary school without worrying about supporting himself just because his parents have divorced. Rules usually limit how long he can remain in high school, however, while you support him. State law varies with regard to what constitutes emancipation or the age of majority – the time when a child is legally considered an adult. In most jurisdictions, graduation is a pivotal factor.
Age of Majority
In a majority of states, the age of emancipation is 18, absent other qualifying factors such as schooling. If your child graduates from secondary school before turning 18, your obligation to pay support typically stops on his 18th birthday. In Alabama and Nebraska, however, a child doesn't emancipate until age 19, even if he's completed high school. In the District of Columbia, Indiana, Mississippi and New York, you must continue supporting your child until he's 21, an age at which most students have long since completed their secondary education.
High School Graduation
Most of the states that statutorily declare a child emancipated at age 18 also make provisions for children who are still attending secondary school as of their 18th birthdays. In these jurisdictions, your child support obligation typically extends until your child's 19th birthday or his graduation, whichever occurs first.
The rules can change if your child wants to go to college after graduating from secondary school. In 23 states and the District of Columbia, the statutes don't address support past the age of majority at all, and college is not a factor. Other states, such as Arizona, expressly prohibit judges from ordering support beyond the age of majority, even if a child goes on to college. Some states will enforce child support payments through college if your original marital settlement agreement or divorce decree provides for this. Hawaii is one of the few states that will allow judges to continue child support until the child has completed his post-secondary education, no matter how long it takes, and Massachusetts law includes a similar provision until the child turns 23. Some states, such as Oregon, hinge continued support through the college years on the child's academic performance. Other states permit courts to require divorced parents to actually pay for college, but there are usually limitations to this requirement and this is the exception, not the rule.
If your child is disabled, the laws regarding schooling no longer apply. If your child is impaired either mentally or physically to the point where he cannot support himself, your support obligation will most likely not end at age 18, regardless of his education status. Only Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Maine and North Carolina do not include provisions in their legislative codes for extending child support for handicapped children. Conversely, some states will end child support even earlier than the date of emancipation if your child marries, moves out on his own, or joins the military.
In some states – Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Texas, Vermont and Virginia – you don't have to do anything to terminate your support obligation if your child meets all the age and education requirements for emancipation. Support ends automatically unless your support order or decree covers other children as well. In this case, you'd have to petition the court to recalculate your support to accommodate your other children. Otherwise, in most jurisdictions, you would either have to give written notification to your state that your child has emancipated, or you may actually have to file a motion with the court to have a judge declare your child emancipated and terminate your support order.