Introduction Most people mistakenly assume that once their child turns 18 or “ages out,” their court-ordered child support obligation for that child automatically terminates without further court action. While this may be true in some cases, the misguided belief that this occurs in all cases can often lead to catastrophic financial and legal consequences, particularly where a child support order provides for the support of more than one child, or in cases where there is a question as to whether the child support obligation has been terminated by statute. Statutory Law North Carolina General Statute §50-13.7(a) provides that a child support order in this State may be modified or vacated at any time only upon the filing of motion in the cause and a showing of changed circumstances by either party. However, N.C.G.S. §50-10 provides that a child support payment becomes vested when it is due to be paid; and after said payment is vested, it can not be modified, reduced, or vacated, unless (1) the party seeking to vacate or modify said child support amount files a written motion to do so before the child support payment becomes due; or (2) if the moving party is precluded by physical disability, mental incapacity, indigency, misrepresentation of another party, or other compelling reason from filing a motion before the payment is due, then promptly after the moving party is no longer so precluded. In short, what this means is that, unless there is no question that the child support obligation is terminated statutorily, or the parent paying child support has filed a motion to modify or terminate their child support payment prior to the date that said payment is due, the paying parent is still obligated to make that child support payment as set forth in the court order – even if they believe that they are no long obligated to do so.
What do I mean by “aged out?” Although it is not exactly a formal legal term, it generally means the age or time that a parent could terminate their child support obligation by statute under North Carolina law. North Carolina General Statute §50-13.4 provides that a child support obligation terminates when a child turns 18 years old, unless one of the following applies:
(1) the child is legally emancipated, at which point child support payments would be terminated;
(2) if the child is still in primary or secondary school when the child turns 18, unless a court orders that child support terminate upon age 18 or prior to high school graduation, then a parent’s child support obligation continues until the first of the following:
(a) the child graduates from high school; or
(b) the child otherwise ceases to attend school on a regular basis; or
(c) the child fails to make satisfactory academic progress towards graduation; or
(d) the child reaches age 20.
After reading all of this, you may still be asking yourself “if the statute provides that it terminates at that time, why isn’t it an automatic termination? Why do I have to go back to court and get another court order?” The answer to those questions depend on the facts and situations of each case. Child Support Termination - One Child If the parties have only one child for whom a parent is responsible for paying child support, termination of child support is a bit simpler than those cases where parents have multiple children who are covered under the child support order. If the child is still in high school when he turns 18 and graduates from high school shortly thereafter with no issues towards progressing towards graduation or ceasing to attend school on a regular basis, the child support obligation would automatically terminate upon his or her graduation. Or, if the child turns 18 after he or she graduates from high school, the child support obligation would automatically terminate on the child’s 18th birthday. Easy enough, right?
Wrong. Let’s say the parties have one child together, for which the child support obligation is $1,000.00 per month. The parties’ only child turns 18 in October of 2019, during the child’s senior year of high school, with an anticipated high school graduation date of May 2020. The child is making decent grades in all of his classes except for one class that he is failing, which prevents the child from graduating in May 2020. The child ends up having to repeat his senior year and graduates in May 2021. However, the parent paying child support believes that, because the child failed his senior year the first time, the child is no longer making satisfactory academic progress towards graduation, and therefore that parent’s child support obligation should be terminated. Because of this belief, the paying parent unilaterally stops paying child support for the child in May of 2020 when the parent realizes that the child will have to repeat his senior year of high school. Was that parent correct in unilaterally terminating their child support obligation in May of 2020, or was the parent actually obligated to continue paying child support until the child’s actual graduation in May of 2021, when the child was 19 years old?
Since there is no straight line definition for what is considered “satisfactory academic progress towards graduation” or “attending school on a regular basis,” the answer to that question is in the discretion of the judge; and by making a unilateral decision of what those terms mean to you and failing to satisfy your child support obligation based solely on your belief alone, you may be opening yourself up to a bevy of financial and legal repercussions, including subjecting yourself to contempt of court. For example, in the scenario above, let’s say that the parent receiving child support files a motion to hold the other parent in contempt for not making child support payments from May of 2020 to May of 2021. The judge agrees with the parent that is owed child support that the child was, in fact, making satisfactory academic progress towards graduation from the time he turned 18 up to his graduation in May of 2021. The court could now find that the parent obligated to make child support payments is not only in contempt of the parties’ child support order, but also owes the other parent $12,000.00 in child support arrears. Had the paying parent simply filed a motion to terminate his or her child support obligation in May of 2020 prior to any further child support vesting, he or she would have known whether their child support payment was terminated or not; and, more importantly, could have avoided being held in contempt and having to pay a substantial lump sum payment to purge himself or herself of that contempt. Child Support Termination or Modification - Two or More Children A common misconception in cases where there are two or more children is the assumption that a modification or reduction of a parent’s child support obligation happens immediately and without further court order upon the occurrence of one of the statutory termination factors for the oldest child, such as the oldest child turning 18 or graduating from high school. Unfortunately, that is not the case in North Carolina.
When there is more than one child for whom support is being paid under a child support order, the obligation never terminates for the oldest child or reduces automatically when the oldest child ages out, unless the original support order specifically allocates the amount of support to each child or addresses the reduction of the child support obligation upon one child aging out, which is rare. As such, to reduce your child support obligation in a case with one or more children, you must get a court order reducing said child support obligation. A common misconception that arises in this scenario is the belief that the parties to a child support order can agree amongst themselves to a reduction in the child support amount without further court order; however, this is not allowed in North Carolina. The only time a court ordered child support amount may be modified is by another order of the court - the parties cannot unilaterally agree, without court order, to reduce the child support obligation for the remaining child or children after one child ages out, or for any other reason. The fact that the parents may agree at some point in time to reduce the child support payment voluntarily does not bind the court to that agreement or the reduced amount. What this unfortunately can mean is that, even after agreeing to voluntarily reduce the child support obligation, the parent receiving child support could subsequently motion the court to hold the paying party in contempt for non-payment of the full, court-ordered child support payment at any time, and the court will then determine the issue of contempt and child support arrears owed based on the full, court-ordered child support obligation.
Thus, it is extremely important in such situations to consult an attorney regarding when and how your child support obligation may be terminated or modified, and discuss what your options are moving forward.