Many parents reason that they should be able to stop paying child support when a child turns eighteen, finishes high school, or begins a job or college. In Massachusetts, G.L. c. 208, § 28 limits the support orders for these older children, but provides that the court may still order support for children aged 18-20 who are domiciled in a parent’s home and principally dependent on that parent for maintenance. For a child aged 21-22, the child must also be enrolled in an educational program, not including education beyond an undergraduate degree.
However, a recent Appeals Court case, Barnes v. Devlin, distinguishes between support provisions decided and ordered by a judge after litigation, and support provisions that the parties agree to before incorporation into a judge’s order. See Barnes v. Devlin, Mass. App. Ct. No. 12-P-1283, Aug. 16, 2013. Where the parties negotiate and agree to terms of a separation agreement that is incorporated into a judge’s order, the terms may be enforceable, even if the conditions of G.L. c. 208, § 28 have not been met.
In Barnes, a father agreed to a separation agreement providing that the parents would share their son’s post-high school education expenses. The agreement was incorporated in the divorce decree. The father stopped making support payments when the son was a college student. The mother filed a suit, and the father was held in civil contempt for failing to comply with the child support order. The father appealed, claiming that the requirements of G.L. c. 208, § 28 were not met, so he should not have to pay any support for this older child.
On appeal, the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld the finding of contempt, and ordered the father to pay the support and to contribute to the son’s education. The Court did not decide whether the requirements of §28 were met, holding that “the father cannot contest the validity of the support orders he voluntarily entered into, notwithstanding his argument … that said orders were issued without compliance with the … conditions set forth in § 28.”
According to Barnes, parents should not just unilaterally stop child support payments on court-approved separation agreements, even if they feel that the requirements of G.L. c. 208, § 28 have not been met. Instead, they should initiate appropriate modification proceedings.
Each family’s circumstances are unique, requiring careful consideration in light of Massachusetts’ courts and law. If you have questions about an order to pay child support, contact the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. today.