As many parents may already know, children often rely on mom and dad for financial support after they reach the age of 18. That can raise tricky issues for parents who are divorced, especially when their financial situations change over time. California’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained how adult child support is treated slightly different than other forms of support in the eyes of the law. The Court also describes some of the circumstances in which an adult child support agreement can be modified.
When Husband and Wife divorced in 2001, they signed a settlement agreement providing that they would split the future education costs for their three minor children. After their eldest daughter enrolled in college out of state 11 years later, however, Wife sought to modify the terms of the agreement. She asserted that she had become completely disabled and was bringing in an annual income of about $23,000. She claimed that Husband, meanwhile, was earning about $400,000 a year.
Denying Wife’s request, a trial judge said he couldn’t alter the education costs provisions of the agreement because they weren’t labeled as “child support” in the contract. The judge said the trial court’s authority to change the terms of a marital settlement agreement was limited to spousal and child support obligations and custody arrangements.
Reversing the decision on appeal, the Second District said that California Family Code section 3587 gave the trial court the power to alter the terms of what it called an adult child support arrangement. “In contrast to the court’s broad jurisdiction to order minor child support, which is rooted in parents’ law-imposed duty to support their children until adulthood, the court’s jurisdiction to order adult child support under section 3587 derives entirely from the parents’ agreement to pay adult support,” the Court said. That agreement is subject to at least limited modification under the statute.
Specifically, the court noted that section 3587 gives courts the ability to “make a support order to effectuate the [marital settlement] agreement.” Read together with California Family Code section 3651, which provides that a court can modify a support order “subject to section 3587,” the court said that the trial judge would be well within his authority in changing the former spouses’ education expenses agreement. The Court nevertheless made clear that parents have the right to limit a court’s jurisdiction to modify an adult child support agreement by doing so in the terms of the contract itself. In this case, the Court said the settlement agreement didn’t do so.
Meanwhile, the Court found that Wife’s reduced income might constitute a “material change in circumstances,” warranting that the child education provision be modified. “The trial court did not consider whether the allocation of college expenses to each parent should be modified in light of the disparity in their respective incomes or other assets that each might have to pay the children’s college expenses,” the Court observed. As a result, the Court reversed the decision and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
If you’re considering seeking a divorce in California, contact San Jose divorce lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve adult child support and other issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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