Child Support and Incapacity

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This week, the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals addressed one of the most difficult aspects of child support law – supporting an emancipated adult past the age of 21 because of a pre-existing inability of the child to live independently due to a medical condition.

Child support generally terminates when a child attains the age of majority – eighteen.  If the child has not yet graduated high school, the support continues until after graduation.  If the child enrolls in some form of higher education and meets certain criteria relating to credit hours, grades and notification of grades to the supporting parent, support can continue until age 21.

The child support statute also provides that if a child turns 18 and is physically or mentally incapacitated, unmarried, insolvent and incapable of supporting herself, child support may continue past the normal boundaries of 18 and 21, with theoretically no particular end point.

Normally, a child with certain physical or mental incapacities will qualify for Social Security benefits and other federal and state aid, funds which count as income for the child.  However, these benefits may not be sufficient to pay for all of the reasonable expenses of the “child” now clearly an adult by age.  In these cases, the parent seeking support may petition the court for an extension of child support benefits.

In Breuer v. Breuer, the Eastern District confronted just such a case.  The parties’ child had been born with developmental disorders that left the child with mild mental retardation.  When she turned 21, she only had the mental capacity of a ten year old and could not care for herself, and in fact lived with mother who served as her legal guardian.  The treating physician indicated the child could not handle her finances independently and could not make value judgments.  Father did not contest that the child could not support herself due to her incapacity.  However, father argued that this condition was known at the time of the divorce and entry of the support order, and therefore mother had failed to show a change in circumstances warranting continued and increased support.  The Eastern District disagreed, finding that the new Form 14 showed a prima facie change in support greater than 20% of the existing support amount.  The change in the parties’ incomes and the expenses incurred to care for the daughter as an adult served as sufficient changes in circumstances under the governing statute.  Additionally, the court stressed the “lack of development” of the daughter – at the time the court entered the original order of support, it did not know whether over time the daughter might develop sufficiently to live independently.  As a result, the appellate court upheld the trial court judgment increasing support from $70.00 per week to $485.00 per month.

Cases involving the financial support of an incapacitated adult child are extremely difficult, as they involve heartbreaking emotions and extensive and perhaps contradictory medical testimony.  But where the evidence meets the statutory requirements of insolvency, incapacity and inability to support oneself, the court has the authority to continue and increase support.

If you have questions about support for an incapacitated adult child, contact us – we can help.

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