Adult child’s ‘failure to launch’ doesn’t justify child support

In most states, the obligation to pay child support ends when the child turns 18. In some states it may end when the child graduates from high school, if that comes first. Minor children also generally can become “emancipated” through a court proceeding if they can support themselves, if they join the military, or if they get married. At that point, the obligation to pay child support ends. But the obligation to pay support can continue past age 18 if the money is used to pay for the adult child’s education or if the adult child is disabled.

What about an adult child who’s still living with one of the parents and just hasn’t figured out a way to support himself? Is the other parent required to pay support in that case?

A recent decision from an appeals court in New Jersey indicates that the answer is “No.”

In that case, a divorced woman’s 19-year-old son was living with her and taking a course at a community college but not working. There was no evidence that he was either disabled or incapable of supporting himself.

The woman and her ex-husband ended up back in family court bickering over whether the father still had to pay child support. The judge ruled that young man was emancipated and ordered that the father’s support obligations be terminated.

The mother appealed, but an appellate court upheld the lower court’s ruling. According to the court, once the son became an adult it was presumed that he was emancipated. The mother could then rebut this presumption with evidence of a disability. In this case, she failed to provide experts to show her son was disabled, and records from his psychologists and social workers in high school, where he battled emotional problems and received special services, weren’t enough to do so.

The court said that the son’s emotional problems and learning disabilities weren’t enough to show he wasn’t capable of becoming independent. Additionally, the divorce agreement itself had no language obligating the father to continue to pay child support after the son reached adulthood.

The law can differ from state to state, but if you’re divorcing and have a child with challenges that you think may keep him under your roof into adulthood, it’s important to discuss this with an attorney. Even though the law doesn’t require your ex to pay support at that point, you may be able to negotiate a provision in your divorce agreement that provides for it.