When Does Child Support Terminate for an Adult Dependent Child?


When most people think of child support, they think of payments that continue until a child’s 18th birthday. Once a child reaches legal adulthood, you might assume that all child support stops. However, there are different reasons why child support might continue after a child becomes an adult, and one such reason is that the child has a disability or is incapacitated and remains dependent on their parents for support.

California law allows child support to continue if the child is “incapacitated from earning a living” on their own and left “without sufficient means” to support themselves. In this situation, each parent is expected to contribute support to the extent of their ability. How long might this support continue? There is no timeline or set end date for child support of an adult dependent child. For this reason, you should have an experienced family law attorney closely review your situation to determine if continued support is necessary and justified in your case.

Calculating Adult Child Support

Child support for an adult child who cannot work is calculated much like child support for a minor child. The main factors that go into this determination include how much time each parent spends with the child and the income of each parent. Other factors might include expenses, tax deductions, retirement savings, and more that might impact the parent’s ability to pay or contributions outside of the court-ordered child support.

In some situations, an adult with disabilities might be able to live on their own, even though they cannot work to earn a sufficient living. In this situation, does either parent have to pay child support?

When you pay child support for a minor child, the funds go to the parent who generally has primary custody of the child. The parent then decides how to allocate the funds for the basic expenses and needs of the child. When a child is an adult, however, the support goes to the child, not to either of the parents. This means that even if the child does not live with either parent, child support might be ordered of both parents.

If the adult child has a legal guardian or conservator, the child support payments can be made to that individual. Such an individual owes the child a fiduciary duty, so you should be able to trust that they will not misappropriate the funds. A parent can be named as the legal guardian or conservator of an adult child, so the funds might go to one parent, who
might also be expected to contribute support for the adult child’s needs.

If the adult child lives with one parent, California courts have ruled that it makes sense for that parent to be in charge of support funds. In the alternative, support payments might be paid into a trust that exists for the adult child’s benefit, and the trustee will be in charge of allocating funds for the child’s needs and well-being.

Should You Agree to Pay Child Support for an Adult Child?

Too often, parents of adult children with disabilities agree to pay support without fully examining or understanding the law on the matter or possible ramifications. It is wise to consult with an experienced family lawyer who understands California law on the matter. It is even more important to have representation because there is no set termination date for this type of support.

An attorney can help you determine whether your adult child is actually incapacitated and unable to earn a living. Some disabilities and disorders might hinder a person’s abilities, but they are still able to hold down a job and earn sufficient income. Sometimes, an adult child simply needs the right support, encouragement, and tools to make their own way.

While any parent can voluntarily provide assistance and financial support for an adult child, especially if the child faces hardships, you might not want a court order requiring you to provide support indefinitely. You also might not want the court to require you to pay the other parent, as you might want your payments to go directly to your child. It is also common for parents to want to preserve flexibility when it comes to the support given. For example, you might support your child in many different ways and then be expected to provide formal child support payments in addition.

California courts are expected to use a two-prong test to determine when to order child support for an adult dependent child:

Is the adult child incapacitated from earning a living? The court should find that the adult child is incapable of being self-supporting because their disability or other factors beyond their control prevent them from finding work and earning a proper living. Some adults have disabilities and are able to work, so simply having a disability is not enough to satisfy this element of the test.

Is the adult child without sufficient means to support themselves? If adults with disabilities cannot obtain sufficient means to support themselves, there is a likelihood they will become a public charge and reliant on public benefits. If the parents have the means to support the adult child, the court can order child support to continue to prevent a burden on the public.

In some situations, parents might agree to a support order when a child does actually have the ability to work despite certain disorders or disabilities. You should not agree to formal adult child support – or simply accept a court order without argument – without having an experienced attorney review your situation.

This is because there can be no end to child support for an adult dependent child. In many cases, a court order for adult child support can last for most of the child’s adult life. If you already have a court order for adult child support that you cannot afford, you should discuss seeking a modification or termination of the order with a skilled family law attorney as soon as possible.

Special Needs Trusts

In some cases, adults with disabilities rely on Social Security or Medicaid benefits. The problem is that adult dependent child support will increase a person’s income and assets for the purposes of benefits eligibility, which can lower the amount they receive or even render a person ineligible for benefits at all.

In this situation, a good alternative to adult child support might be to create a special needs trust. This can provide support but ensure that your child remains eligible for the public benefits they need. An attorney can review your situation and determine whether a special needs trust is right for your child.