Now that the chords of ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ at your child’s high school graduation have faded away and the relatives have all left your home, it is time to think about one lingering question: what happens to child support? Under South Carolina law, child support obligations generally end when a child reaches 18 years old or has graduated from high school, whichever is later. However, there are several considerations to bear in mind depending on your individual circumstances.
Could Child Support Terminate Earlier?
Yes! Child support could be terminated earlier than 18/graduation from high school if the court finds a child is “emancipated.” This means the child has moved out of their house and is now self-supporting. In other words, they are paying for their healthcare and no longer need a parent’s permission to sign a legally-binding contract or engage in other activities that otherwise require a parent’s permission. Examples of emancipation include marrying, obtaining a full time job, or joining the military.
Does Child Support Automatically Terminate?
It depends. If the supporting parent’s child support obligation is set pursuant to a support order and you only have one child or your youngest child is emancipated, child support terminates automatically.
If a supporting parent is paying through the family court and there is only one child, the parent will need to petition the court and ask the court to enter an order terminating child support. The parent should attach an Affidavit to the Petition, evidencing the child’s emancipation, age, and/or graduation from high school.
If the support order involves support for more than one child, an older child’s emancipation will not terminate a child support obligation for that child. In fact, in Blackwell v. Fulgum, the South Carolina Court of Appeals explained that in these cases, “the court simply continues the existing support agreement for the benefit of the minor children until such time as the court, upon request of the supporting parent, can calculate a proper reduction in the support obligation based on a showing of changed circumstances.” Therefore, if one, but not all of your children are emancipated, you will need to file a petition with the court asking for a modification. Under South Carolina law, to modify a child support order, the parent must show there has been a substantial change in circumstances. A child’s emancipation will most likely constitute a substantial change warranting modification.
If I Have More Than One Kid, Is it Worth Petitioning to Modify Child Support?
It depends. As mentioned above, if a support order covers support for more than one child, an older child’s emancipation does not terminate or alter child support. The question then becomes: Is this even worth doing?
First, let us take a step back – South Carolina uses an “income shares” model to determine a parent’s child support obligation pursuant to South Carolina’s Child Support Guidelines. “Income” under South Carolina law is defined as all income from any sources. This includes the commonly known income sources such as salary, bonuses, and commissions, but also rental income, dividends, trust, draws, and unemployment benefits. The income shares model takes into account the following factors:
- How many minor children the parties have;
- The combined gross incomes of the parents;
- Each parent’s gross income as a percentage of the combined gross income;
- Monthly alimony to be paid or received between these parents;
- Any parent’s pre-existing obligation to pay child support or alimony;
- The amount paid for work-related child care;
- The amount paid for health insurance for the children and the party responsible for paying it;
- The amount paid for the children’s extraordinary medical expenses and the party responsible for paying for them; and
- The number of other children in the home.
South Carolina provides a Child Support Calculator to help parents understand how these factors work together to calculate your base amount of child support. However, a court still has discretion to deviate upwards or down from the guidelines. A court may also decide to “impute income” to either parent if it finds that parent is voluntarily unemployed or under-employed, particularly if the parent has the ability and education to be a high wage earner with no time or physical constraints.
After you get an idea of what your base child support obligation may be, you can make a better evaluation of whether it is worthwhile to seek a support obligation. There are two cases where it may not be worthwhile to seek a support modification. First, you should consider waiting to modify if the older emancipating child is only a couple of years older than the youngest child. In that case, it may be more cost effective to wait until the younger child emancipates and then file a termination petition, if necessary, to completely terminate your support obligation. Second, it may not be work seeking modification if you are the supporting parent and your income has increased substantially since the original support order was entered. In that case, applying the child support guidelines to your higher income may actually increase your child support obligation.
Are There Any Exceptions to the General Rule?
Yes! There are two general exceptions to the rule terminating child support at 18/graduation from high school. First, a child support obligation may terminate later if you and your spouse have previously entered into an agreement providing a later date for termination. Second, South Carolina law provides that child support may be extended if the child has “physical or mental disabilities of the child or other exceptional circumstances that warrant the continuation of child support beyond age eighteen.” A typical example of this exception is where a child (1) has a disability that causes him to continue to be a dependent and not capable of self-support and (2) that disability existed or was known to exist on or before that child’s eighteenth birthday.
Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney
It is important to seek representation from an dedicated Greenville, SC family law attorney if you are seeking to terminate or extend your child support obligation. Contact the Greenville, South Carolina family law attorneys at the Elliott Frazier Law Firm, LLC to help you navigate the complex child support laws and determine the most efficient steps to move forward with your child support case.