APRIL 12, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 12
Most people are familiar with modern concepts of child support. It can be awarded to the custodial parent in a divorce proceeding. The amount of support is usually calculated by reference to standardized computations promulgated by the courts. A support award usually includes an automatic assignment of wages to help ensure the payments get made. It ends when the child reaches age 18. Wait — that last one is not necessarily correct.
Most states (Arizona included) permit courts to order continued child support for an adult child with a serious mental or physical disability. The rules vary from state to state, but Arizona’s approach is not particularly unusual. If you are concerned about this issue because you know about an adult child with a disability living in another state, be sure to check that state’s laws before assuming the Arizona rules are identical.
In Arizona, child support can be awarded to an adult child with a disability if:
- The child is severely disabled, either mentally or physically, and is “unable to live independently and be self-supporting,”
- The disability began before the child turned eighteen, and
- The court considers the financial resources and needs of the child and both parents, along with the effect of the disability on those needs.
[There are actually two circumstances in which child support can extend past age 18 under Arizona law. The court can also continue child support until age 19 if the child is still in high school.]
See Arizona Revised Statutes section 25-320(E) for the precise language of Arizona law. Note that the law does not require the parents to be divorced, separated or even pending divorce or separation. A court proceeding can be initiated solely for the purposes of establishing support requirements, and the resulting order can be directed against either or both parents — including against a parent with whom the adult child lives. Note also that the support request does not have to be filed before the child reaches age 18, though the disability itself must begin before that age.
A recent Arizona Court of Appeals case dealt with the issue of support for an adult disabled child. In Gersten v. Gersten, decided November 17, 2009, the appellate court dealt with a trial court decision denying support payments to the father of an adult child with a disability only because the father had not been appointed as his son’s guardian or conservator. The Court of Appeals directed that the matter be returned to the trial court, and the son’s interests considered either by having a guardian or conservator appointed or by joining him as an actual party to the divorce proceedings.
One common problem when support is ordered paid to an adult child with a disability (or to the parent with whom the child lives): the support will be treated as income for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility purposes. See, for example, the Social Security Administration’s POMS section SI 00830.420(C), which sets out the procedure an SSI eligibility worker must follow when assessing child support payments for an adult child with a disability.
That may mean that the support order reduces the beneficiary’s check by almost as much as the support order, and it might even result in elimination of SSI. That, in turn, might lead to the loss of Medicaid benefits paid for through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).
In some cases it might be possible to maintain eligibility for public benefits and still seek an award of support for the benefit of an adult child with a disability. A special needs trust for the benefit of the child support recipient can be set up (perhaps even by the court ordering the support) and the monthly payments assigned to the trust. The process is not always simple or straightforward, and an experienced attorney should be consulted.