All parents have an obligation to support their children, whether married or not. If separated or divorced, the noncustodial parent is often ordered to make child support payments either directly to the custodial parent or through the state. The amount paid is generally based on the number of children, the respective incomes of both parents and the degree of parenting time though other statutory factors are considered.
Under Florida law, child support typically ends when the child turns 18 but may be extended for when the child turns 19 or graduates from high school. However, the age of the child as the sole determinative factor in when child support ends is not entirely accurate.
High School Graduation
Generally, a parent no longer has to pay child support once the child graduates from high school or turns 18. Most children turn 18 at some point during their senior year in high school or soon thereafter, but many do not graduate with their original class. If the child, however, shows a “reasonable expectation” of graduating at age 19, such as by being enrolled and attending regularly with acceptable grades, then the paying parent is required to continue the payments until the graduation date. On the other hand, a parent with a child who drops out of high school at age 17 should not expect support payments after the child turns 18.
Special Needs Children
Children with severe physical or mental disabilities or special needs present a different scenario. If the disability appeared at birth or at any other time before the child reached age 18, the court will decide if it is substantial enough to prevent the child from becoming financially independent. If so, the support may continue indefinitely or for the life of the child. It is essential that this fact be stated in a child support order or the payments may end on the child’s high school graduation or 18th birthday with no opportunity to be reopened.
You may, of course have an agreement with the other parent over child support that can continue beyond the age of 18 or high school graduation. Unless these agreements are in writing and approved with a court order, such agreements are typically not enforceable.
End Dates and Direct Payments
If you have a child support order in effect, it should have an end date on the Income Withholding Order or IWO. Unfortunately, this is a requirement that some judges overlook. If there is no end date, you will have to obtain a court order. Should you decide to stop payments on your own, you risk being found in contempt.
A direct payment situation, however, can relieve you of this obligation automatically without the necessity of obtaining a court order. If you have been paying the other parent directly and not to the State of Florida, then you can stop your payments on the day your child graduates from high school or turns 18 under other circumstances.
Payments to State of Florida (FDSU)
In many situations, parents make their support payments directly to the state or their employer does so by sending payments from their paychecks pursuant to an IWO. The agency receiving these payments is the Florida State Disbursement Unit (SDU). These orders will have an end date, but this does not mean your payments automatically terminate on that date. To have your support payments end, you must obtain a court order directed toward the SDU. If you decide to stop payments on your own, you will be held accountable regardless of the age or circumstances of your child.
Out of State Orders
Some state laws require child support to continue until the child attains the age of 21. If the support order is from a different state, then that order governs your obligation to continue paying until the child reaches the termination date. The SDU will probably be involved in enforcing the order under the Uniform Interstate Florida Support Act—mandating states to follow the laws of the state where the order originated and to cooperate in the collection of support payments.
If your child has graduated from high school, you can have the support order transferred to Florida and have the payments terminated but only if you, the child and the custodial parent are Florida residents.
As you can see, the end of child support is not a cut and dry proposition. If your situation is unusual or you have questions about when your child support payments may terminate, contact an experienced Florida family law attorney.