Years ago, when I was Bar Mitzvahed, the accepted way to begin your speech in the synagogue was “Today I am a Man!” Though I and the other kids who were Bar and Bat Mitzvahed were only 13 years old and far from being or acting adult, it repeated the millennia-old tradition of my ancestors. In California, we have a somewhat similar misconception that has become part of the popular lore, that becoming 18 or graduation from high school ends all burdens and risks related to child support. Sometimes fairytales include some elements of truth, as does this one, but they also disguise some of the ogres waiting to beat your head with a club.
First, the child support law of California states “(a) The duty of support imposed by Section 3900 continues as to an unmarried child who has attained the age of 18 years, is a full-time high school student, and who is not self-supporting, until the time the child completes the 12th grade or attains the age of 19 years, whichever occurs first.” Family Code §3901(a). So, if your child has started school late or been sent back a year, you may end up paying his or her support until the age of 19. Child support ends upon your child both reaching 18 and also graduating from high school.
Second, beware of blithely promising to “contribute” to your child’s college expenses in a marital settlement agreement during a dissolution of marriage. Those undertakings are enforceable the same as any other lawful provision of a contract as dictated by Family Code §3587. Regardless of changed circumstance or other financial burdens, fair or unfair, that may arise in future, the courts have the authority to enforce stipulated provisions for support of your children after they have reached the age of majority.
Of course, another aspect of ongoing duties for care and maintenance of our offspring deals with ill and incapacitated children. The Legislature of California has deemed it more equitable for the parents of infirm or disabled children to have the primary obligation to carry the financial burden of their upkeep, Family Code § 3910. Whatever part or percentage of their living expenses their income or property cannot cover, will be ordered against their parents.
Fourth, one of the most dramatic changes in child support related law came about in the first decade of the 2000’s. For many years, child and spousal support payors (the party who has to pay the support) could block enforcement and collection of unpaid support by successfully asserting a number of defenses, including, waiver, estoppel, laches, the statute of limitations (non-renewal of the order), etc. Most of these were eliminated by statutory amendment or other changes in the law.
However, in 2005, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a revision of Family Code § 4502, enacting new Code §4502(c). This nullified the last of the impediments preventing full enforcement of unpaid and accrued child support. Hotly challenged as unconstitutional in a number of court cases, the California Supreme Court declared the new law constitutional, paving the way for it to become firmly ensconced in statutory law. Re Marriage of Fellows (2006) 39 Cal.4th 179; Family Code §§291, 4503. As a result of these statutory enactments and appellate law decisions, child support arrearages will follow you until you are in the grave, and thereafter if you leave a sufficient estate.
In conclusion, it is largely correct that most of us will be liberated from responsibility under the law to support our children when they graduate from high school and reach the age of 18. However, you may still have some of that load on your back if circumstances warrant. If you have any question whether the conditions described above might apply to you, it is best to discuss it with a qualified family law attorney.