Child support may terminate only with judicial emancipation

If you pay child support for a teenaged son or daughter who leaves the other parent’s home to live elsewhere, do you still have to keep paying? Though it may vary from state to state, a recent North Carolina case indicates the answer is “yes.”

The parents in that case, Shannon Morris and Dean Powell, married in 1994 and had two children before divorcing 2013. The judge granted joint custody of their son “Richard,” with Shannon receiving primary custody and Dean being ordered to pay $1,000 a month in child support.

When Richard was 17, he moved out of his mother’s house and in with his girlfriend. Because Richard wasn’t living with his mother anymore, Dean stopped making support payments the next month. Shannon took Dean to family court over his non-payment and Dean moved to terminate his obligation. The judge granted Dean’s motion, finding that Richard had essentially “emancipated” himself (in other words, freed himself from his parents’ control and freed them from any and all responsibility toward him).

Shannon appealed and the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s decision, finding that North Carolina law — which states that child support payments “shall terminate” when a child reaches the age of 18 or is “otherwise emancipated” — does not recognize “de facto” emancipation. For Richard to become emancipated, he would have had to go to court himself to get a decree from a judge. So while the court said Dean shouldn’t be held in contempt as Shannon wanted, it also said he still owed the payments.

Other states may view things differently. If you’re in this situation, talk to an attorney to find out the law where you live.

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