When one parent is paying child support, the support ends upon the child's emancipation, which is when the child can legally act as an adult. However, emancipation does not always occur when a child turns 18. State laws vary concerning emancipation. Furthermore, a divorce decree can order that a parent continue paying child support while a child is enrolled in college. For these reasons, it is essential that you carefully review your divorce decree and your state's child support guidelines prior to making any changes to your child support payments.
Common Emancipation Factors
States usually define emancipation as the time when a child is no longer dependent on his parents for financial support. In most states, emancipation does not occur, at minimum, until a child graduates high school. However, emancipation can also occur when a child gets married or joins the military, as these events are evidence that a child is prepared to care for himself.
Emancipation and College
In some states, such as Massachusetts, a child remains unemancipated while in college full time and as such, the paying parent must continue with child support payments. This applies whether the child is enrolled in a community college, trade school or university. It also doesn't usually matter if the child lives at home and commutes, or lives on campus. Because the child is studying full time, the law usually views the child as still dependent on his parents. In states with laws like this, there is still a date upon which a child is emancipated, but it can also be case-specific, depending on the child's educational goals and needs.
Death of Child or Paying Parent
Child support terminates upon the death of a child. However, if one parent owes the other parent past due child support, the parent would still owe that support even after the child's death. Also, child support terminates upon the paying parent's death, which is why the parent paying child support is typically required to carry life insurance to keep the children financially protected.
How Child Support Terminates
The manner in which child support ends varies from state to state. In some states, such as Oklahoma, you can stop making child support payments the month after a child's 18th birthday, as long as the child has graduated from high school. In other states, child support continues until the paying parent files an application with the court to stop it. Some states may apply a hybrid approach and send the recipient parent an information packet when the child's emancipation date approaches. This gives the court an idea as to the child's circumstances so it can determine if the support should continue. Irrespective of state laws, if a divorce agreement requires a parent to pay support while a child is in college, this will take precedence over any law that would normally emancipate the child. Moreover, a non-paying parent can request that the court order the paying parent to continue making payments if the child is physically or mentally disabled.
Child Support for Multiple Children
If a parent is paying child support for multiple children, that support will not automatically decrease when the oldest child becomes emancipated. Instead, the paying parent will usually have to file a motion with the court requesting to have the child support payment recalculated based upon the oldest child's emancipation. If a paying parent reduces the amount of child support or stops paying altogether without court approval, past due support could accumulate, resulting in fines and penalties. For this reason, it is always best to check with your local courthouse to determine your rights with respect to child support, especially when your child's 18th birthday is approaching.