A common question amongst both custodial and non-custodial parents concerns the duration of child support and when the obligation to pay the support will end. Non-custodial parents want to know when they can stop writing checks to their ex-spouse or ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend. Custodial parents, meanwhile, need to maintain their family budget…which often includes costs associated with providing food, clothes, and college tuition for child over the age of 18. So the question remains: When does the obligation to pay child support come to an end? This legal guide provides a general answer to this question as it pertains to individuals residing in California.

The General Rule: 18 Years Old

In general, a parent’s duty to support a minor child continues until the child reaches age of majority (i.e., age 18). See Family Code§§ 6500–6502. As such, court-ordered support for a minor child ordinarily terminates when he/she reaches age 18. See Family Code§ 58. There are, however, several exceptions to this general rule which are set forth below.

“Adult" Children Attending High School

Many custodial parents have children who turn 18 before graduating high school. The child typically attends high school full-time, is not self-supporting, and lives with his/her custodial parent. Under these circumstances, does child support end when the child turns 18?

In general, the answer to this question is “no". A parent’s child support duty continues for unmarried children who, after turning 18, are full-time high school students and not self-supporting. This duty continues until the child completes the 12th grade or reaches age 19, whichever occurs first. See Family Code§ 3901; see also Marriage of Schopfer (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 524, 534–535; Marriage of Everett (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 846, 852.

So if a child turns 18 while attending high school and is not self-supporting, the duty to pay child support will continue until he/she graduates. Once the child turns 19, however, the child support obligation will come to an end even if he/she is still attending high school and is not self-supporting.

Incapacitated and Special Needs Children

Many custodial parents take care of children with special needs and/or disabilities. Despite turning 18, these children will depend upon the support of their parents throughout their adult years. Under these circumstances, do child support obligations come to an end at age 18?

In general, the answer to this question is “no". To the extent of their ability, both parents have an equal responsibility to support a child “of whatever age" (whether a minor or an adult) who is: 1) incapacitated from earning a living; and 2) without sufficient means. See Family Code§ 3910(a).

Case law indicates a child is “incapacitated from earning a living" for support purposes only upon proof of a mental or physical disability preventing the child from being able to work. At the very minimum, there must be proof of an inability to find a job due to factors beyond the child’s control.

Even where a child suffers from an applicable incapacity, the support obligation will only continue if he/she is “without sufficient means." Since the statutory purpose behind this exception is to protect the public from the burden of supporting a person whose parents are able to do so, Courts resolve the question of sufficient means in terms of the likelihood the child will become a public charge. If a child’s incapacity keeps him/her from earning enough money to be financially self-sufficient, however, a parent’s duty to pay child support will probably continue.

“Adult" Children Attending College

Many custodial parents have children who turn 18 and attend college. The child typically attends college full-time, is not self-supporting, and lives with his/her custodial parent. Under these circumstances, does child support end when the child turns 18?

In general, the answer to this question is “yes". An adult child unable to pay for a college education without his/her parents' help is not, by that fact alone, “incapacitated from earning a living" and “without sufficient means" so as to trigger a parental support obligation. Put simply, there is no statutory authority by which adult children - who are not physically or mentally disabled - can compel their parents to pay for their college education. See Jones v. Jones (1986) 179 Cal.App.3d 1011, 1017.

Agreements to Support Adult Children

Just because the law does not impose a duty upon a parent to provide support for his/her child, that doesn’t mean the parents cannot come to a voluntary agreement to provide support beyond a child’s 18th birthday. If such an agreement exists, the Court has authority to approve the parents' stipulated agreement to pay for the support of an adult child or for the continuation of child support after a child reaches age 18 and may make a support order “to effectuate" such an agreement. See Family Code§§ 3587, 3901(b). Once reduced to a court order, the agreed-upon support for adult children will be enforceable in the same manner as any other child support order.