California Court Upholds Termination of Child Support by “Operation of Law”

Parents who decide to divorce or separate must address a host of difficult issues, both financial and emotional. Among the most contentious is child support. Fortunately, there are state guidelines that assist the parties in calculating an appropriate amount of monthly financial support for the particular family. If parents do not agree on the amount, a judge will determine the child support payment based on the guideline calculation. Despite these legally prescribed guidelines, parents and ex-spouses often dispute any number of issues related to support. In order to limit or hopefully eliminate any potential arguments over child support, it is important that you address the issue with the help of an experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area.

In a recent California case, the divorced parents disputed whether the husband was responsible to continue paying child support for their 18-year-old son. Here, the parties were married in 1987 and received a judgment of divorce in 2007. The judgment ordered the husband to pay child support for each of their four children until the child reaches the age of 18, except that such support would continue until he or she graduates from high school or reaches the age of 19, whichever occurs first, if the child is a full-time high school student who is not self-supporting. The parents disagreed as to whether the mother was entitled to child support for their 18-year-old son, who had moved to Minnesota to pursue a professional hockey career. The wife filed a statement alleging that the child was in high school in Minnesota. It seems that he was attending high school on a part-time basis (25 hours), online, out of state, and away from both parents.

The trial court held a hearing to determine whether, under these facts, the child qualified for continued support after the age of 18. The court reviewed Section 3901 of the California Family Code, which provides that the duty of child support continues as to an unmarried child who has attained the age of 18 years, is a full-time high school student, and is not self-supporting, until the time the child completes 12th grade or reaches the age of 19 years, whichever occurs first. The court concluded that the father had no further obligation to continue child support, noting that there was no evidence that the child was still attending high school. The wife appealed, arguing that the court’s finding that her son was not a full-time high school student was contrary to the evidence. She further claimed that the husband failed to show “changed circumstances” necessary to modify child support.

The court of appeals first pointed out that the wife’s evidence that her son was a full-time high school student was based on two letters that she wrote — which the court considered to be “hearsay” and inadmissible. The court further concluded that under Section 3601, no evidence of changed circumstances is needed when the child support obligation terminates as a “matter of law.” Here, the court ruled that the child support order terminated by operation of law under Section 3901, when the child turned 18 and no longer attended high school full-time. The court affirmed the lower court’s decision that the child was not a full-time student.

Both parties in this case appeared before the court without representation by counsel. Parties in family law cases affecting the rights of children are typically encouraged to consult with an experienced divorce attorney as early in the process as possible. Roy M. Doppelt has been representing parties in divorce matters for more than 20 years. His office serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt and Forney, APLC through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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