Some states leave parents scrambling when the time comes to end child support, wondering what -- if anything -- they’re supposed to do to make sure it happens. If you live in Pennsylvania, the state does its best to lead you by the hand. In some cases, you may not have to do anything. In others, the matter can be handled administratively by your county’s Domestic Relations Section; you don’t even have to go to court.
When Support Can End
Pennsylvania is on par with many other states when it comes to emancipation -- the time when your child becomes an adult so you no longer have a legal responsibility to support him financially. Child support ends when your child is 18 in Pennsylvania, unless he’s still enrolled in high school. In this case, it extends to graduation. Support may continue indefinitely, however, if your child is disabled or otherwise unable to care for or provide for himself.
Pennsylvania law doesn’t require that a parent must continue paying support if his child elects to attend college after graduation. Nor will the state force a parent to pay tuition or other educational expenses past the age of emancipation.
Terminating Support Through DRS
If you’re paying support through your county’s Domestic Relations Section, if you only have one child and if your ex is honest and reasonable, terminating support can’t get much simpler than in Pennsylvania. DRS sends an emancipation inquiry to the custodial parent within the six months preceding the child’s 18th birthday. You’ll receive a copy as well. Your ex must return the notice to DRS, confirming your child’s date of birth, his status as a student, whether he’s still living in her household and the absence of a written agreement between you that support will continue beyond emancipation. She must also confirm that your child doesn’t suffer from a disability -- that he’s physically and mentally able to care for himself.
If your ex fails to respond to the notice, or if she does respond and confirms that your child has met all criteria for emancipation, DRS will administratively terminate your support order. DRS has authority to restructure the order instead, however, if you owe arrears. You might have to continue making payments in the same amount as your old child support obligation until the arrears are paid off.
It’s also possible that DRS will waive your arrears, but this typically only happens in extreme circumstances -- for example, you’re unemployed and are not collecting unemployment and you have no assets. In this case, pursuing you for past-due support would be a waste of the county’s resources.
Your ex can object to termination of your order when she receives the notice from DRS. If she does, DRS will schedule a conference to sort things out and make a decision. Pennsylvania’s laws are pretty black and white, however, so if your child is 18, a high school graduate and not disabled, your ex wouldn't have grounds to demand continued support.
If You Have More Than One Child
If you have more than one child and only the oldest emancipates, you’re not done paying child support quite yet. DRS won’t terminate your order but will instead schedule a conference to recalculate child support based on your current incomes and one less child.
If You Don’t Pay Support Through DRS
Like most states, Pennsylvania prefers that you pay through state services, and this is typically mandatory unless your ex agrees to some other arrangement and a judge approves it. If you’ve received permission to pay your ex directly, you’ll have to file a petition to vacate with the court to ask the judge to terminate your order. You might need assistance from legal aid or an attorney.