A new state law that drops the cutoff age for child support in Indiana is raising questions about how the courts may interpret it.
On July 1, the age of emancipation in Indiana moves from 21 to 19, automatically terminating child support payments for almost anyone who has turned 19.
Family law experts predict a period of confusion as judges, lawyers, and families figure out how to apply the new law to existing child support orders and agreements.
Drew Soshnick, past chair of the Indiana State Bar Association's family law section, said the new law will likely trigger a wave of calls to attorneys and a rush of requests to judges to modify child support orders and agreements.
One area of possible contention: the law exempts support for the “educational needs” of a child over 19 but doesn't spell out exactly what falls into that category. “We expect a lot of discussion about 'educational needs' as people try to broaden that definition,” Soshnick said.
Another area ripe for debate: Does the new law cancel out exisiting child support agreements involving children over 19?
Melissa Avery, current chair of the state bar association's family law section, said the law is written to apply retroactively. But she expects some debate on that issue from lawyers and their clients who may question whether the legislature can unravel child support agreements that have been crafted or approved by the courts. “There is some lack of clarity (in the law),” Avery said.
She also expects some angry reactions, as people see an abrupt end to child support payments they may have been expecting.
“Our challenge at this point is getting the word out, to make sure people are aware it's happening,” Avery said.
The change in the age of emancipation brings Indiana closer in line with most states, which terminate child support obligations at the age of 18.
Still, it signals a major shift in a philosophical argument over the obligations that a parent has to a child. Avery said the Indiana State Bar Association's family law section didn't take a position on the legislation, as it was making its way through the Indiana General Assembly, because family law attorneys in Indiana were so divided on it.
State Sen. Tim Lanane, an attorney and Democrat from Anderson, sits on the Senate Corrections, Criminal and Civil Law Committee where the legislation changing the age originated. He said the argument over the emancipation age has gone on for at least 20 years in the General Assembly, as legislators opted to leave the law as is.
Lanane said that conversation intensified over the last year. One of the issues raised was fairness: While Indiana law required a non-custodial parent in a divorce to pay child support until the age of 21, the law doesn't require parents who are married to each other to do the same. “Some people felt that it was bad public policy to treat children of an intact family differently than children of divorced parents.”
Lanane said the Indiana legislature opted for 19 – rather than 18 like most states – because there are some Indiana high school students who don't graduate until they're 19. “We wanted those students covered while they were still in school.” The legislature also included the exemption for education expenses, acknowledging the cost of college.
Lanane said he expects the new law may trigger a rush to courthouses by the lawyers of parents involved in child support agreements. He hopes the best interests of children will come first. “I think most parents will feel an obligation to continue their support, even if they're not legally obligated to do so.”