For many of us parents who have adult children we recognize that our children don’t magically become fully self-sufficient when they turn 18 and graduate from high school. When couples divorce in California the legal requirement to support them (unless they are incapacitated) ends when they emancipate which is when they turn 18 and have graduated from high school, or 19 if they have not graduated prior to reaching the age of 19. In today’s blog we will spend a little time exploring how the needs of adult children are dealt with in a divorce. What do we do to assure the needs of adult children are met, and what about college, health insurance, and other essential living expenses that our adult children are not yet in a position to cover?
Legal Requirements for supporting Adult Children. Each state has their own set of rules surrounding when the parent’s financial responsibility for the children stops. It is my understanding that Oregon has child support laws that include a responsibility to contribute to the needs of adult children who elect to attend college. There are other states as well that provide for an ongoing financial obligation beyond 18. California does not have such a requirement for ongoing support beyond emancipation. Family Code 3901 provides clear language for when the legal requirement to pay child support stops. This is where the end date for child support comes from.
So, we have identified that children don’t necessarily become self-sufficient at 18. We have confirmed that the law in California provides for the child support obligation stopping at that time. What can we do to assure the needs of our adult children continue to be met as we proceed through the divorce process?
Reaching Agreement to Support. While the Court won’t force a parent to provide for an adult child, it will accept and enforce an agreement made by parents to establish an obligation to continue assisting adult children. When considering including a provision in your divorce decree, it is very important to understand that you are agreeing to something that is beyond what the Court would require, and when you do so you are making a legal commitment that you should expect will be enforced by the Court. So what might these agreements look like and address?
Health Care Coverage. The most common agreement regarding adult children is to continue maintaining the adult children on any health insurance plans available through the employment of either spouse. Typically health insurance plans allow the employee parent to continue maintaining an adult child’s coverage as a dependent until the age of 26. Typical language in the agreement might be that the eligible parent shall continue maintaining the health care coverage for the child for so long as it remains available at no or reasonable cost. It is usually not a significant added expense to keep the adult child on the coverage so agreeing to maintain the coverage beyond emancipation is not a huge added financial commitment.
College Expenses. Another frequent discussion with divorcing couples is addressing what sorts of commitments they will make for supporting the adult child in attending college. Perhaps arrangements had been made during their marriage to begin setting aside funds into a college savings plan/529 Account. Couples who were in agreement during their marriage to save money for this expense might be more willing to formally agree in their divorce decree to commit to ongoing savings. If couples are aligned in their support for helping with college, they may be able to come to an agreement to include some sort of written commitment to what expectations there will be for each to help when the time comes. It can be helpful to have the conversation so the parents can get on the same page and the task can be shared between them.
After having the conversation, couples may agree in principle to helping their children when the time comes, but may be resistant to making a binding agreement in their divorce decree. As mentioned, the Court would not formally require a parent to help with college, but will enforce an agreement to do so. Spouses might instead agree that they will work together to do what they are able to do when the time comes but without putting it in writing. They might agree to put money aside into a 529 account but not set any certain obligation to cover all the costs that might arise. Oftentimes it is unknown what things will look like for the finances of each parent down the road so binding one another to the responsibility might be hard to do.
Some Considerations for College Expense Agreements. When couples do agree to help with college expenses it is important to provide clarity about the extent, duration and details of the commitment. How long will the obligation last? Until the child turns a certain age? Until they graduate from college? What happens if they take a break from school to do something else for a while? Will the agreement be for public schools, or private as well? Will it include tuition, room and board, spending money, books? Will there be a cap on the amount of money each parent shall be required to pay? Will there be minimal requirements such as the child achieving a certain GPA or enrolling in a certain number of classes each term? Will the agreement be modifiable if there is a change to the financial circumstances of the parties? Will it be accomplished by savings while the children are still minors or will it start once they begin attending college.
Another consideration is how will the signing of student loan obligations take place? Will it be more advantageous for one parent versus the other to make college financing applications to maximize aid available, grants, scholarships etc., and if so, how will the responsibility be handled? Will the parents look to the child to assist with the necessary college loans once they have graduated and obtained employment? These are all important and valuable conversations if the parents are willing to entertain making some sort of a formal commitment to college related expenses.
Other Living Expenses. Whether or not our adult children head off to college, there may be a transition period from when they become adults until when they are in a position to manage and pay their own expenses. The parents can discuss and agree on some transitional period for how they will work to pay such things as car insurance, living expenses, accommodations, phone bills, etc. Sometimes the agreement will again not find its way into the divorce decree but the parents can informally sort out who will help with what expenses and what a reasonable time frame might be before the child should be stepping up and covering such expenses on their own.
What about through Spousal Support? I have spent previous blogs addressing the issue of spousal support, and part of the spousal support analysis for permanent support is considering the financial circumstances of both parties as well as the standard of living that was enjoyed during the marriage. In In re Marriage of Maher and Strawn (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 22, 2021) the Court concluded that it was appropriate to consider if a spouse was providing assistance to an adult child both when considering the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage as well as when considering the financial circumstances of the supporting parent. While it was argued that considering support being provided for an adult child when making a spousal support order ultimately resulted in a child support obligation continuing after adulthood, the Court rejected this argument. A parent’s financial commitments for an adult child can be considered when looking at the whole financial picture of each parent.
If saving for college or contributing to college was part of the marital standard then the Court can presumably consider it as part of the discussion for ongoing permanent spousal support. The expectation would certainly be that a spouse’s financial obligation would be to the other spouse needing financial assistance above providing support to help an adult child, but given Marriage of Maher and Strawn the impact of financial commitments to adult children is a factor the Court can consider when addressing the issue of spousal support.
Figuring out how to handle the financial needs of adult children is a complicated and challenging topic. The law establishes that the obligation to support a child, unless they are incapacitated, ends when they are 18 and graduated. Given that self sufficiency doesn’t magically happen at that time, it is a valuable discussion to try to include this issue when sorting out your divorce. While you may decide that you don’t want to make any legally binding commitments, if possible it is valuable to at least work toward maintaining clear communication about what you both are willing to consider as you help your children through their transition into adulthood.