Child Support and Disabled Children Becoming Adults
In Arizona, child support typically ends when a child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever happens last. When a child has a disability, however, a parent’s responsibility to contribute support may continue, even beyond the age of 19.
Since 1973, Arizona law gives family court judges the discretion to order a reasonable amount of support for the necessary expenses of a disabled adult. This special form of support is paid by the parent who is not primarily responsible for the care of the disabled person (the non-custodial parent/obligor) and is paid to the primary residential caretaker (the custodial parent/obligee).
Although the disabled person is an adult, Arizona uses the child support guidelines as a means to assure that the costs of caring for a disabled adult is shared between both parents. As a result, an order for a disabled adult may look substantially similar to a child support order. For example, Arizona judges use the child support worksheet to calculate the appropriate amount of support (available to the public online at http://www.azcourts.gov/familylaw/2015-Child-Support-Calculator). The non-custodial parent may be ordered to make payments through the Arizona Child Support Clearinghouse. Any unpaid arrears may accrue interest and may not be dischargeable in bankruptcy.
To begin the process, the custodial parent files a motion in an existing family court case. The same superior court case is used when the parties initially filed for divorce or filed for parenting orders (in non-marital cases). In some circumstances, the family court can order a non-custodial parent to pay support even if no family court case existed during the disabled person’s childhood.
Before a court will order support, a parent needs to be named the legal custodial parent of an emancipated child. This critical step is typically handled by the probate court and assures two important factors have been considered: 1) the emancipated person is physically or mentally disabled and is unable to financially provide for herself and 2) a parent has been given legal authority to care for the disabled person.
The family court judge will also evaluate whether the disabled person’s disability began before she reached the age of majority. This element may be difficult to prove in mental illness cases, especially if no diagnosis was made until after the child turned 18. Medical documentation and expert testimony may be needed to prove that the person suffered the disability as a child.
A family law or probate law attorney may be helpful in determining whether a family support order is appropriate. If you choose to consult with a lawyer, bring all relevant documentation, including: child support orders for the disabled person and any other minor children, prior probate court orders, recent and past medical documentation related to the disability, proof of ongoing medical expenses, proof of ongoing care related expenses, proof of any social security award, proof of costs of insurance premiums, recent paycheck stubs, recent tax return statements and any other information that may be relevant to the case.
Contributing Attorney Writer: Marty Zalevsky is an attorney at Donaldson Stewart P.C., where she practices in family and juvenile law.
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