Incapacitated and Unable to Work: Making the Case for Adult Child Support

In the majority of family law cases, child support will terminate upon the earliest of specific triggering events, such as the child’s completing high school, reaching age 19, or achieving other certain milestones. However, in some cases, children may receive child support into their adulthood.

The parent’s obligations to support their child may extend into the child’s adulthood if, for example, an adult child has been deemed to be incapacitated, is unable to support himself or herself because of a mental or physical disability, or is unable to find work because of factors beyond the child’s control.

Just as a father and mother have an equal responsibility to contribute as much as they are able to the financial care and costs of raising a child, parents also have an equal responsibility to provide child support for an adult child as defined by the law. The statutory purpose for adult child support is to protect the public from the financial burden of supporting a person through public assistance programs when that person has a parent who is able to provide support.

The Adult Child Incapacitated From Working

In the recent California Court of Appeal case, Marriage of Cecilia and David W., the court concluded that continuing support for an adult child requires more than just presenting evidence of a disability or of potential difficulties in finding work. Rather, the court said that continued support depends on showing whether the adult child is truly unable to be self-supporting in light of the disability, or is clearly unable to find work due to factors outside his control.

The appellate court was not satisfied that the adult child in question was truly incapacitated and prevented from working. During the hearing in the trial court, only the adult child’s psychologist presented testimony regarding how health issues impacted the child’s day-to-day functioning. Though the adult child suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the Court of Appeal was not swayed by the psychologist’s testimony as it did not focus on whether the adult child could find work and be self-supporting in light of his conditions. Moreover, the adult child had never been evaluated by a vocational counselor to determine whether he could get a job.

Lack of Sufficient Means

The question of whether a parent has sufficient means to provide support turns on whether the adult child will become a public assistance burden if child support is not awarded.  In deciding this, the courts have found it to be irrelevant if an adult child is receiving financial aid from a university, and have also found it insufficient to show that a child earning minimum wage cannot live at his parents’ economic level. Rather the inquiry must be narrowly focused on whether the adult child can support himself or herself and avoid becoming a public assistance burden.

Providing the Right Evidence

The legal standards to show that an adult child’s disability or difficulty in day-to-day functioning justifies continued support into adulthood must be met through appropriate evidence, which may include but not be limited to testimony from a vocational expert as well as testimony from a psychologist or a physician.

There are few court decisions applying the incapacity standards in California other than the Court of Appeal ruling discussed above.  Working with an experienced family law attorney and employing experts to present a case to the court for continued support is critical. As the Marriage of Cecilia and David W. case illustrates, even showing that an adult child has an undisputed disability does not in and of itself guarantee a right to adult child support.

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