When Does California Child Support End? When a California judge orders child support, that support is supposed to last until the child turns 18. But there is a major exception based on Family Code section 3901. That exception provides that child support can last as long as another year, until the child’s 19th birthday, if the child (or young adult, I guess) is a full-time high school student. For this to happen, the child also must be unmarried and not be self-supporting, but I do not know too many 18-year-olds who are.
Recently, the California Court of Appeal had a chance to determine what exactly the term “full-time student” means in the context of a child support or family law case. In D.H. v. B.G., decided on January 17, 2023, the trial judge said “full-time” means “what the child’s school considers to be a ‘full-time’ course load, including during the summer”. But by a 3-0 count, the justices reversed, holding that “full-time” means the length of the school day as designated by the school district where the child’s parent resides.
In most cases, the “when does California child support end?” issue is not that complicated. If a child turns 18 while completing the senior year of high school, child support continues until June when the child graduates. This is because between the 18th birthday and graduation day, the child most likely is a full-time student based on just about anyone’s definition of full-time.
On the other hand, if the child does not turn 18 until after graduation, child support continues from graduation day until the 18th birthday because, for people under 18, it does not matter whether they are going to school full-time or not.
In this case, however, the minor did not start high school until she was 15. She turned 18 in the spring of 2020 shortly before June, but this was only when her junior year ended. After June, the child took a summer class at Ingenuity Charter School before entering an inpatient treatment facility in September for an eating disorder.
The minor then took one class through Grossmont Adult School in the fall of 2020 and had no classes during the winter from late 2020 to early 2021. Then the student was discharged from the inpatient facility. Finally, the student took two classes in the spring of 2021 and then earned a high school diploma in May 2021 from Grossmont Adult School. This was four years after starting high school in 2017.
The trial judge found that the child ceased to be a full-time high school after June 2020, when her junior year ended because her attendance did not meet the school’s definition of full-time. The Court based its decision on evidence that Grossmont considers full-time attendance to be at least 15 units.
The appeals court, as stated above, disagreed with this approach. Writing for the Court, Justice Martin Buchanan stated that the proper approach – requiring a post-majority child to conform to district attendance requirements for the normal length of the school day—affords the child “the opportunity to complete a high school education on the same terms as minor children and furthers the goal of educating a more employable citizen”. Rejecting the trial court’s rule which was based on the exact number of credits the student happens to be taking in any term, Justice Buchanan wrote that this approach “would defeat the purpose of (California law) by arbitrarily denying child support for those who have already accumulated excess credits and are able to take a lighter load to graduate in their senior year. Applying the school day definition also curbs the potential for abuse by holding a post-majority child to the same standard as a minor child in terms of compulsory attendance”.
The D.H. opinion also warned that its ruling might not apply in all cases. The justices said courts should promote “the Legislature’s goal of continuing child support to afford unmarried students between the ages of 18 and 19 an opportunity to complete a high school education”. For example, a child could be considered full-time even if he or she missed a substantial portion of school for illness, death, and other reasons enumerated in the California Education Code.
These “excuses”, said the Court, “allows for flexibility in accounting for the many individual circumstances students face. We cannot anticipate every unique situation that might arise, but the goal is generally to continue child support for high-school students between the age of 18 and 19 if they are engaged in activities towards achieving a high-school degree that would satisfy the compulsory education requirements for minor children”.
Based on all of this, the appeals court sent the case back to the trial judge for a “do-over”. (My words, not theirs.) But the court addressed one final issue, namely, how to apply its new rule for the child in this case once summer break started in June 2020 and the school day –as would be in the case for any school operating on a ten-month traditional schedule—would be de minimus. In perhaps the most important part of its decision, the court stated that “[a] parent’s child support obligation does not terminate just because a student who has turned 18 is taking either no classes or something less than a full course load during the summer break between traditional academic years. Such a result would defeat the purposes of section 3901 and run counter to the customary understanding of when a high school student is expected to attend school”. (Emphasis added.) (But to make the issue even more complicated, the court said the reasoning might be different if the over-18-year-old attends school based on a year-round calendar.)
So, when Does California Child Support End? The answer, especially when there is a lot of child support at stake, is not to try to handle one of these cases yourself. You need a family law lawyer, preferably a lawyer certified as a family law specialist by the State Bar of California, Board of Legal Specialization.