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How Long Does Child Support Last in California?

Within the State of California, whether the Court will order you to pay or receive child support is a seemingly simple issue that in reality depends on a complicated set of rules. Child support can be ordered under a variety of circumstances, including incident to divorce, unmarried parentage, domestic violence, guardianship, and cases where one parent is receiving public aid.

“How much and for how long?” are the two most frequently asked questions regarding child support, but there are many important factors that impact the full answer, and you should consult an experienced family law attorney to get the best outcome.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While the Court will ultimately make the decision, knowing what facts will influence the Court’s decision can make a big difference in the outcome.

If you’re confused about your child support obligations, this article is for you.


The Age of the Child

Traditionally, the law assumes that someone is a legal adult when they turn 18. Thus, you would think that when they are no longer a child there would be no further basis to award child support – but that is not always true. However, in most cases, support ends “around” the age of 18, so a quick calculation of the difference between now and when your youngest child turns 18 will tell you how many more years of support to expect. However, there are other factors and rules that may apply and the “when” is only half of the two-part question; how much support will be ordered is another question altogether.

Child support payments may change over time but usually reflect the facts of the case at the time the Order is made or as expected to exist at some time in the future. For example, when support is based on more than one child, the amount of total support reduces as each child becomes an adult. However, because the Order is unevenly weighted to the youngest children rather than evenly divided among all children, calculating the remaining support payment is not as simple as reducing by a proportional fraction. Another complexity arises when the custodial timeshare for one child is different than another.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As life changes occur, including change in income, expenses, marital status, new home, new children, and other influential factors, so can the amount of support to be paid. Consulting with an experienced attorney from time to time to see whether current orders for support reflect best case scenario is something like going to a check-up with your doctor – you have to run some tests and answer some questions to get the best diagnosis! (How’s YOUR blood pressure reading this article?)

Your Child’s Education, Work, or Marital Status

“…The duty of [child] support … continues as to an unmarried child who has attained 18 years of age, is a full-time high school student, unless excused pursuant to paragraph (2), and who is not self-supporting, until the time the child completes the 12th grade or attains 19 years of age, whichever occurs first.

Unraveling this statute can be confusing, but in most instances support ends when the child graduates from high school after their senior year, or once they turn 18, whichever is later. But you can see from the quoted statute how other circumstances could change that result.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t assume nothing needs doing about child support just because your child has turned 18 or graduated from high school. An early consultation with a knowledgeable family law attorney can potentially save you time, stress, and money.

Your Child’s Health and Ability to Be Self-Supporting.

There is an often overlooked and, frankly, not widely known law that may require parents to pay support for an adult child “who is incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means.”

The intended application of this law generally relates to a serious medical condition that prevents the child from taking care of themselves and may relate to congenital conditions including Spina Bifida, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or serious injury or disease such as MS, Cancer, or severe mental health conditions.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is no published rule that puts a time limit on when an application for adult disabled child support can be requested. If your adult child is in your care and in need of financial support, you have the right to demand financial assistance from the other parent.

Prior Agreements with the Co-Parent

Child support does not always terminate as described in the statute. In some instances, parents make an agreement to extend child support beyond the age required by statute, such as for college tuition, rent, medical insurance or other. The rules of Court permit this and will enforce such an agreement especially where converted into a court order. Often, such an agreement is part of a comprehensive divorce agreement, but it can be applied in other support cases as well.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Once an agreement is made to do something that the law would not otherwise require be done, the party looking to change that agreement must prove a substantial change of circumstances before the Court will let them out of that obligation – so be careful what you agree to!

Terminating (Ending) Child Support

Child support may end upon the occurrence of the events described in the statute or the Court Order or by further Order of the Court.

The exact date upon which an order for child support ends is not as simple to determine as you may think. While generally it is true that most orders include language that describes when support ends, whether that will stop a wage assignment or other enforcement measures is a different question. So too is the question of compliance - whether the correct amount of support has been paid over the years is often a question in dispute.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Any agreement or ruling which is finalized by the court as an Order is binding and enforceable upon the parties. A simple change of heart is an insufficient reason to stop following a Court Order and doing so may result in substantial interest, penalties, attorney fees, and even prosecution for contempt of court.

If you believe your support order is scheduled to terminate within the next 6-12 months, you should consider whether further legal action is necessary to fully and finally conclude this legal obligation - or if more needs to be done. Here again, a qualified and experienced child support attorney can be very helpful.

Other Circumstances Resulting in Termination of Child Support

Other situations that may result in the termination of a child support Order include:

  • The minor passes away.
  • One of the parents passes away. (NOTE: The estate of a deceased parent can be ordered to provide support to the minor child if there are sufficient assets to do so.)
  • The minor legally marries someone.
  • The minor achieves financial independence.
  • The minor is emancipated from their parents.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Not all states have the same rules concerning child support, including how support is calculated and how long it is to be paid, so if you are new to California do not assume the rules from your home state are the same as here.

A Word on Modification of Child Support Orders

Prior to the termination of a child support obligation, one of the parties may want to ask the Court to modify the amount of support to be paid. A modification technically ends the prior order and replaces it with a new order. The reasons for modification are too numerous to list, but usually relate to circumstances that are different from when the order was originally made.

Some common reasons to request a modification of child support:

  • There is a significant change in the Custody Order (parenting schedule);
  • You or the other parent experiences a significant change of income;
  • A significant change in the cost of daycare or medical care for the child;
  • You or the other parent have another child;
  • You or the other parent remarries.

IMPORTANT NOTE: While you may think a modification of child support is warranted, there may be other reasons that cause the actual support order to turn out differently, so make sure you have a pretty good idea of the outcome before going to court.

Our firm is here to help with child support orders and modifications. If you need help, call us at (916) 299-3936 or contact us online.