California Child Support Laws 2023

NEW: See our updated post for California Child Support Laws 2024.

Under our common law system, case law is a constantly evolving part of the legal landscape for family law. This is intended to be the first in a regular series highlighting recent cases and their impact on family law in California. I will also include some commentary at the end about how this may impact families going through divorce. 

Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 1, California

This case dealt with the termination of a parent’s child support obligation for an 18-year-old who was alleged to no longer be a full-time student. An obligation to pay California child support typically continues until the youngest child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever happens later. In this case, the father argued that child support should end immediately, and he is owed a refund for recent support payments. The father alleged that because the child was 18, enrolled in fewer classes than had previously taken, and had an extended leave from school for health reasons they should no longer be eligible for child support. At trial, the court agreed and ruled that the child was no longer a full-time student.

This meant that the mother was ordered to pay back the money she received from the father during that period. While the father won at trial, the important takeaways come from the Court of Appeal which considered the mother’s appeal seeking to overturn this ruling.

Education Code 42800 Unfolded

The Court of Appeal considered the question of what makes a full-time student and concluded that the definition in Family Code section 3901 should be the same as that in Education Code section 42800. This means that the important measurement for full-time is not something like the length of the school day relative to previous enrollment, but as determined by the governing board of the relevant school. Importantly, the Court also highlighted that courts should not strictly apply the standard where it is in conflict with the stated legislative goal of providing continuing support to 18-year-olds so that they may complete their high school education.

In this case, for example, it was important because the minor child’s school attendance and course load had been erratic due to some time spent seeking treatment for a mental health disorder. Here the court looked to public policy and how best to support the Legislature’s goal of supporting and allowing young students to complete their high school education. This means that the hours or units of the student are not the only relevant factor and are, in many cases, not dispositive.

The Court again referenced the Education Code to list, non-exhaustively, the valid reasons a student may have for such an absence (e.g. – family emergencies, illness, religious and cultural reasons, and professional appointments including mental health). All of this led the court to conclude that the case should be sent back to the lower court for reconsideration of the child’s status.  

What to Expect for California Child Support in 2023

Lastly, and importantly, the Court ruled that the burden of proof to show that the child is still a full-time student falls on the support received in this situation. The Court came to this conclusion based on several relevant factors including the relative knowledge of the parties, the availability and access to evidence, and the role of public policy in allowing children to finish their education. This is likely to be the most impactful part of the Court’s decision for child support cases where the child is primarily or solely with one parent. The Court’s rationale was that the evidence needed was most likely to be most readily available to that parent. The Court of Appeal ultimately remanded the case back to the trial court under this standard and those previously discussed.  

For many families going through a divorce, or considering beginning the process, this means that child support can be expected, in most situations, to extend to the end of high school even for children who may turn 18 during their senior year. Importantly, this also extends to those who have absences due to unexpected circumstances such as a mental health emergency. For the child in this case, the time needed to seek treatment impacted the course of their education, but the Court declined to say that should negatively impact their ability to finish high school. The Court here took its time to reassure families that the care and education of our children both remain an integral part of child support and that this vital public policy should be top of mind for judges when making a ruling.  

California Child Support Mediation

When you’re in mediation with us, we will accurately calculate child support and help you and your co-parent establish how other expenses will be paid. We will strive to predict possible future expenses and put guidelines in place so you and your co-parent will have the plan to resolve issues or conflicts as they arise.

by: Todd Singer

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