In a few short weeks, many children will be graduating from high school and will embark upon the next chapter of their lives. Whether that choice includes college, trade school, or the work force, as a divorced parent, how does this milestone affect your custodial rights and financial responsibilities toward your child?
With regard to custody, Pennsylvania custody laws pertain only to children under the age of eighteen. As such, once a child reaches the age of eighteen, if he or she no longer wishes to abide by the parental custody schedule, neither parent will be able to enforce its provisions through the court system or hold the custodial parent in contempt. Essentially, upon the child reaching the age of eighteen, the custody order becomes null and void.
With regard to child support, Pennsylvania parents are liable for the support of their children who are unemancipated and eighteen years of age or younger. Emancipation, in most child support cases, is equivalent to the child graduating from high school. Thus, whichever of these two listed events occurs last triggers the termination of the obligor parent’s responsibility to financial support his/her child. For example, if the parties’ child turns eighteen in March, but graduates from high school in June, the obligor parent’s financial obligation will continue until June, while conversely, if the parties’ child graduates in June, but does not turn eighteen until August, the obligor parent’s financial obligation will continue until August. In most cases, the Domestic Relations Office (DRO) will send out child support termination notices shortly before the child’s eighteenth birthday to both parents. It is then the responsibility of the parents to advise DRO if a later date, such as a high school graduation date, should be used as a support termination date.
After 1992, and the landmark case of Blue v. Blue, no Pennsylvania parent can be held legally responsible for the post-secondary school expenses of his/her child, unless the parent contractually obligated himself/herself to pay for the same. As such, there is no Pennsylvania statute imposing a financial duty upon parents to satisfy their child’s post-secondary school expenses, but if parents contractually obligate themselves to assume such financial responsibility, e.g., through a Marital Settlement Agreement, the courts will uphold and enforce such provisions.
It is important to note that the above information does not include support exceptions for disabled children. In those cases, financial obligations may continue well past the age of eighteen.