Child support for adult children with disabilities after divorce

On Behalf of | Jul 5, 2024 | Child Custody

The divorce process can require careful attention and handling when the divorcing litigants share a child with disabilities. From custody and parenting-time issues to a wide range of financial matters, parents of a vulnerable person have unique concerns for the future care and well-being of that child that rarely stop when they reach adulthood.

When most kids reach the age of majority, they can rely less on their parents as they become more able to provide for themselves. But when a child has significant disabilities, that independence may develop more slowly – or even negligibly. Many parents remain involved in the care, protection and financial support of their disabled child into adulthood, and often this becomes a lifetime role.

So, when divorce disrupts the natural evolution of the family into the disabled child’s adulthood, U.S. states have handled the question of child support in a variety of ways through their legislatures and/or courts. Connecticut has a specific statute that allows the court to order child support for the care of a disabled child until age 26 in specific circumstances, as our courts have interpreted this law. See CT Gen. Stat. sec. 46b-84(c).

Connecticut child support orders for adult disabled children

The statute allows the court to “make appropriate orders of support of any child with intellectual disability … or a mental disability … or who is physically disabled … who resides with a parent and is principally dependent upon such parent for maintenance until such child attains the age of twenty-six.”

Judges have the authority to make such orders extending support to age 26 in divorce, legal separation or annulment proceedings with decrees entered on or after Oct. 1, 2023. The child-support guidelines do not apply in this instance.

It is important to note that even if the child with disabilities is years away from adulthood, a parent-litigant should request that the court include in the divorce decree that it “retains jurisdiction to enter appropriate child support orders post-majority.” See Croxford v. Brock, 2004 WL 304293 (unpublished 2004).

Litigation of child support for adult children with disabilities

Sometimes a divorcing couple successfully negotiates an agreement that defines the parameters of child support for an adult disabled child. The parties can agree to terms different than those to which the judge must adhere. If the court finds the agreement “fair and equitable,” it becomes part of the final divorce decree. CT Gen. Stat. sec. 46b-66.

But when the litigants cannot reach agreement or the court finds their settlement is not fair and equitable, the judge will determine based on the evidence whether to order support and what the parameters of the award will be.

For the court to make an informed decision, a litigant should present evidence needed to support the statute’s requirements. For example:

  • The disabled child’s age
  • Medical diagnoses and the nature of resulting symptoms, including medical records, testing and assessments
  • Functional difficulties in daily living, including testimony of family members, teachers or medical professionals like treating physicians, specialists, psychologists, psychologists, therapists and others
  • School records and assessments
  • Special expenditures the family incurs or will incur to support the child such as tutors, private school, adaptive technology, adaptive vehicles, adaptations to residence, medical or other equipment, companion services, caregivers, nursing services, nutritional expenses, stress relief through services like massage or music therapy, and others
  • The disabled child’s residential arrangements with one parent on whom the child depends or will depend for maintenance
  • Anything else relevant to the case

In addition, at least one appellate case said that the mother should have presented expert testimony to prove that the child had autism. The argument that autism is a medical condition “obvious or common in everyday life” failed because a layperson would not know this diagnosis as they could for something like pregnancy or amputation. Sheppard v. Sheppard, 80 Conn.App. 202 (2003).

The statute includes specific cross-references to other laws for the definitions of three categories of disability, at least one of which must be met for adult child-support eligibility:

  • Intellectual disability: The child must have “a significant limitation in intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior that originated during the developmental period before eighteen years of age,” according to specific testing that is “individualized, standardized and clinically and culturally appropriate to the individual.” CT Gen. Stat. sec. 1-1g.
  • Mental disability: The child must have either “a record of or [be] regarded as having” at least one mental disorder in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) from the American Psychiatric Association. CT Gen. Stat. sec. 46a-51(20). As of this June 2024 writing, the current edition is the DSM-5-TR, published in 2022.
  • Physical disability: The child has “any chronic physical handicap, infirmity or impairment, whether congenital or resulting from bodily injury, organic processes or changes or from illness, including, but not limited to, epilepsy, deafness or being hard of hearing or reliance on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device.” CT Gen. Stat. sec. 46a-51(15).

An experienced attorney will know the type of medical expert witness needed to show that the child in question meets one of these statutory definitions.

Legal counsel advisable

It is imperative that any parent-litigant with a disabled child of the marriage consult a knowledgeable family lawyer to help preserve all rights to support for the child and for smart advocacy and representation. In addition, other financial issues may inform or impact decisions about adult child support such as potential public benefit eligibility and whether to preserve it, the use of special needs trusts and other trusts, ABLE accounts and issues related to estate planning that can harm or benefit a disabled heir.

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