Massachusetts Child Support: When does it end?

It is common belief — at least for those who have never had to deal with the issues of child support — that child support obligations terminate upon a child turning the age of 18.   While it is true that under certain circumstances a child support obligation will terminate when the youngest child reaches the age of majority, in Massachusetts a parent may receive child support up and until their youngest child reaches the age of 23.  Indeed, there is no other state or jurisdiction within the United States that allows for child support to run for so long.  Whatever your personal opinion on the possible length of child support in Massachusetts, understanding  the framework and logic behind court ordered child support payments will help you better be prepared for any future court proceeding, and will allow you to have the knowledge you need to navigate this most important area of Massachusetts Family Law.

There are two controlling statutes that govern Massachusetts Child Support:  Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 228, Section 28 (for the children of married parties), and Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 209C, Section 9 (for children born out of wedlock).  Both statutes — while not identical in language — are identical in all respects with what the statutes require.  Indeed, it is violative of both federal and state law to treat children born out of wedlock differently than children born of marriage.  These two statutes set clear parameters as to the how long child support should run.  However, the statutes alone are not the only essential read to understand the Massachusetts Child Support laws.

The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, revised and updated in 2009, are a must read for anyone who is involved in a child support case.   A substantive document with explicit rules on child support in Massachusetts, the Child Support Guidelines give guidance to practioners and litigants on all aspects of child support in Massachusetts.   For example, the Guidelines give the judges of the Probate and Family Court guidance on how to appropriate income from a secondary job, or income from a parent who is working overtime.  Further, the guidelines give guidance to the Family Court on how to handle unreported income, or attribution of income if a parent is underemployed.  The Guidelines are full of substance, and are an essential read for anyone dealing with the frustrating issue of child support.

The Guidelines, however, do not explicitly deal with the issue of termination of child support.  Rather, the legislature left this to statutes.  Massachusetts has three different categories, or three different age brackets with respect to child support.  The first, and most obvious, is any child who is under the age of 18.  The simple rule here is that barring some sort of unusual circumstance, any child under the age of 18 is entitled to receive child support.  There is no need to look into the circumstance of the child, what the child is doing, or what the circumstances are of the custodial parent.

The second bracket is a child who has obtained the age of 18, but has not yet obtained the age of 21.  This bracket is an interesting one.  Under Massachusetts law, a child between the age of 18 and 20 is entitled to receive child support in two circumstances.  The first, and most obvious, would be the traditional situation where the child is enrolled in college.  In this instance, the custodial parent would be eligible to receive child support for the support and maintenance of the child while the child is enrolled in post-secondary education.

There is an important aside to the traditional circumstance where the child moves off to college that should be addressed.  A child who lives away for college — a common occurrence even in a saturated college environment such as Massachusetts  – is still dependent upon his/her parents.  Indeed, the custodial parent must still maintain a room for the child when the child returns to home during breaks and summer vacation.  Accordingly, a child living in dormitories for 9 months out of the year is still entitled to child support payments, and will be until said child is graduated from college or has reached the age of 21.

The third and final age bracket is 21 up to the age of 23.  This bracket only applies to children that are enrolled in a post-secondary education program.  This bracket is similar to age bracket two above, however, it does not include children that are not enrolled in college.  Accordingly, a child that is 21 years-of-age or older in Massachusetts — and is not in college — is emancipated and not eligible for child support, even if the child lives at home is for all intents and purposes is dependent upon the custodial parent for support.

Moreover, a child that is 23 years-old and is on the “7 year” college plan (See the movie “Animal House ” for a better understanding of the “7 year college plan), and accordingly, has not yet graduated from college is nonetheless ineligible to receive child support payments.  In other words, once a child reaches 23 years-of-age in Massachusetts, regardless of their education situation, or their dependency upon their parents for support and maintenance, the custodial parent is no longer entitled to child support payments from the non-custodial parents.

Finally, while these so-called “brackets” are explicitly outlined in the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, there is one exception to the termination of child support upon a child reaching the age of 23.  In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has concluded in the case Feinberg v. Diamant, that adult children past the age of 23 are nonetheless entitled to support from their parents if the child of said order is dependent upon his parents for maintenance and support.  Therefore, if a child is over the age of 23, yet suffers from a condition (mental or physical) that renders said child dependent upon his parents, the non-custodial parent will be required to pay child support to the custodial parent.