Child or Adult? Massachusetts Can’t Seem to Decide

October 29, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Follow the bouncing child. Or rather, try to guess when the child is a child and when she’s an adult. In Massachusetts at least, it’s not easy to know and in fact you’ll probably have to pay a lawyer to help you figure it out. Read about it here (Boston Globe, 10/19/14).

Gerald Nissenbaum is a lawyer who’s written a legal advice column for the Globe for many years. Here’s what one woman asked:

Q My daughter, now 20, quit college after her first semester and got married. The marriage lasted a year. She moved back in with me after her divorce. And she re-enrolled in college the following September and is commuting from my house.

When she married, my ex-­husband stopped paying child support. Now he claims he doesn’t have to pay child support or help her with college because when she married she severed his financial obligations.

What is your view?

— J.F. Westboro

Now, the uninitiated might answer that, once the young woman was married, the law considers her an adult and not eligible to receive child support. And that’s correct.

Massachusetts law provides that children can become emancipated by marrying, going into the armed forces and so on.

That makes sense. After all, if she’s old enough to get married and potentially have children of her own, the law should no longer treat her as a child who needs continuing support from her parents. But of course “J.F.’s” daughter only remained married for a year. She got divorced, so how does that affect her status? Surely, once emancipated, always emancipated. Once an adult, one can scarcely go back and become a child again, right?

Wrong. The young woman began life as a child, became an adult when she married and, via divorce, became a child again. It’s not anything that’s known in nature, but no one ever accused family law of making as much sense as nature does. Indeed, as far as the Bay State’s laws go, a child could bounce back and forth between childhood and adulthood many times depending on marital status, military service and the like.

[C]hildren can become unemancipated by getting divorced, being discharged from the armed forces, etc.

And of course, when it comes to paying child support for a daughter who one day is a “child,” the next and adult and the next a “child” again can be pretty daunting.

Parents are on the hook to support their unemancipated children up to age 21 if the child is dependent on the parents for support and living with a parent. If the child is in undergraduate college after age 21, child support continues until the first of her attaining age 23 or earning her undergraduate degree, unless she again marries in the meantime.

So, if a “child” decides to go to college, parents in Massachusetts must pay to support them irrespective of the fact that, in every other way, they’re considered adults. Can they vote? Yes. Serve in the military? Sure. Purchase alcohol? Of course. Get and hold a job? That too. But when it comes to buying their own socks and underwear, the state considers that to be beyond them. You figure it out.

But beyond that, the entire magic act is absurd. “Now she’s an adult, now she isn’t” makes no sense at all and I suspect it’s not intended to. Decades ago, when states decided to become the sole conduit for child support paid by non-custodial parents to custodial parents, the federal government began offering hefty reimbursements for monies expended on collection efforts. And cases like J.F.’s demonstrate clearly that it is those payments from Washington that distort much of the law on child support. The more money paid in child support, the more money states receive, so, to no one’s surprise, over the years the obligation to pay and the amounts required to be paid have only expanded.

So the age of “children” has gone up an up. You can now be 23 in Massachusetts and be considered a child. Of course that designation is for one purpose and one purpose only. Nowhere else are Bay State citizens of that age considered children. Just think; what if J.F.’s daughter when out and robbed a liquor store at gunpoint, was apprehended and brought before a judge. I wonder how that judge would react if she said “Your honor, I can only be charged and tried as a juvenile. After all, I’m still a child.” The judge would never stop laughing, but in family court, for the purpose of collecting child support, she’s exactly that — a child.

That’s not because a person who’s been married and attended college is, in any real sense of the word, a child in need of her parents’ support. It’s because states want that federal cash flow and they’ll engage in pretty near any legal fiction to keep the floodgates open.

And as usual, the money goes, not to the child, but to the custodial parent. By all that’s sane and reasonable, if J.F.’s ex is required to resume supporting his newly de-emancipated daughter, he should be sending the money to her, not her mother. Yes, she lives with Mom, but as the adults they are, Mom and daughter can agree on how much rent she should pay, what portion of the utility bills, the house insurance, car insurance, etc. Should they be unable to agree and the “child” moves to a different residence, maybe just maybe, Dad can begin paying her directly.

But as things stand now, this is yet another case in which a non-custodial parent can rightly point out that his “child support” is in reality Mom support. It doesn’t get much clearer than in this case.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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