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Case Notes: Child Support for an Adult Child

In the recent case of Morgan v. Morgan, 2014 PA Super 176, the PA Superior Court ruled concerning an adult child who was receiving child support via a property settlement agreement that was incorporated into the Decree in Divorce.

Generally, child support terminates when a child reaches 18 and graduates from high school. However, an unemancipated child may continue to receive support in adulthood. Typically, adult child support is reserved for a "special needs" child who cannot support himself. That was the case here.

In 2003, the parties divorced in Maryland, pursuant to a property settlement agreement. The property settlement agreement provided, in part, that Father pay Mother alimony and child support. The agreement was then incorporated into the decree in divorce.

In 2007, Father filed in PA to reduce his alimony obligation. Mother countered by seeking to increase Father's alimony obligation. These actions lead to 4 years of litigation, including multiple appeals and a trial.

In 2011, Father sought to drop the child support for his adult son. As part of the ensuing child support proceedings, Father's employer submitted income information showing that Father lied about his income and submitted falsified documents. The discovery of Father's fraud lead to a protracted "discovery" period of some years to get to the bottom of matters.

Finally in 2013, the trial court entered an order setting Father's child support obligation and ordering Father to pay counsel fees of 128K to Mother (for her work on tracking down his fraud). Both parties appealed the ruling to the Superior Court.

Father argued that the court could not modify his support obligation because it was made in an agreement that was incorporated into a foreign decree in divorce. However, since child support is always modifiable, the Pennsylvania trial court had jurisdiction to modify the Maryland support agreement.

Mother argued that the court erred in assigning her an 80.5K earning capacity, because the child required "round-the-clock" care and the cost of a caretaker for the child would be the same as the income that Mother could obtain at a job. However, the Superior Court rejected this argument as "speculative" until Mother actually got a job. Until then, the Court cannot know how many hours Mother would work or commute or would need to spend with the child. There was also no evidence presented regarding the amount of time that would be needed for a caregiver.

Mother also argued that her earning capacity of the 80.5K was wrong based upon the expert testimony. Mother won that argument because the vocational expert testified that Mother could be expected to reach 80.5K in earnings only after a few years of employment. The immediate earning capacity was lower.

Mother also argued that the child support award should have included an "upward deviation" because Father spent less than 5% of his time with the child. This argument was rejected since the court found that Mother limited Father's time with the child. Also, an upward deviation for minimal custody time is only an option for the court, not a requirement.

Lessons from this case:

1. Don't lie or fabricate documents Here, Father had to pay 128K in counsel fees and rightfully so. And the parties litigated for 7 years. The reputation of your counsel for honesty and candor is one of the key attributes in any attorney.

2. Just because one party does "wrong" (i.e. Father's falsehoods), does not mean that the court will rule in the other parties favor on everything else. Here, Mother was assigned an earning capacity despite the child's medical condition.

3. Mother's case was clearly harmed by her failure to introduce good evidence regarding the prospective cost of childcare or Mother's attempts to find employment. Also, Mother's extensive political work and PhD work likely undercut her claim of zero earning capacity.

4. Family law attorneys who can successfully negotiate fair settlements are worth their weight in gold. Here, the parties spent seven years of their lives on this mess. And Mother alone chalked up counsel fees of at least 128K. The best fights are those avoided. Sometimes there is no choice but to litigate and Father's dishonesty made settlement more difficult. But scorched-earth litigation rarely benefits anyone.

5. A good family law attorney must know how to handle "atypical" events, such as adult children receiving support, a party falsifying documents, a party failing to work but obtaining a PhD and moving a divorce/support case from state-to-state.