Many payor parents in Ontario mistakenly assume that child support automatically ends when their child turns 18. The law, however, says otherwise. The basic premise of child support is to ensure that children benefit from the support of their parents when they are unable to become self-sufficient. Viewed in this light, the question of age becomes less important than the child's ability to support herself.
In Ontario, we normally look to three statutes when dealing with child support: the Federal Child Support Guidelines, the Divorce Act, and the Family Law Act. The Guidelines largely provide a framework for determining the amount of child support to be paid once it is established that the child in question is entitled to support. When dealing with adult children, the Family Law Act explicitly states that they remain entitled to child support where they are enrolled in a full-time program of education. The Divorce Act entitles adult children to support where they are "unable, by reason of illness, disability or other cause, to withdraw from their charge or to obtain the necessaries of life". Case law has long since accepted "other cause" to encompass children pursuing full-time education.
The meaning of "full-time" education causes further confusion. Courts have found children to be enrolled in a full-time program, despite taking less than a full course load. Generally, this is the case where the child's participation remains consistent with the program's objectives. This vague interpretation can cause uncertainty – where there is uncertainty, courts generally err on the side of providing children with support.
Further, a break in the continuity of the child's education does not necessarily terminate support. It is common for children to enroll in a post-secondary program only to realize that their chosen program is not for them. They may then take a semester or a year off before changing programs. While child support would likely end for the period during which the child was no longer enrolled in school, the child can re-qualify for support once she enrolls in another program. The longer the child remains out of school, however, the greater the expectation will be for her to become self-sufficient.
Courts have also held in some circumstances that child support should continue for a brief period of time following a child's completion of post-secondary education, to support the child's transition to the workforce. It is reasonable to expect a brief amount of time for the child to secure employment.
In addition to the basic table amount of support, the payor may be required to contribute to the child's education expenses, such as tuition, textbooks, meal plans, rent, etc., in accordance with section 7 of the Federal Child Support Guidelines. These are referred to "special or extraordinary expenses". This exercise may be more complex, as it requires a proportional calculation of the expenses based on both parties' incomes, and an accounting of the child's obligation to contribute to her own education expenses. However, this is often painlessly navigable with a knowledgeable family lawyer.
Lastly, some ex-spouses prepare separation agreements detailing a "terminating event" for child support. A standard agreement may have child support terminating once the child reaches the age of 21, or obtains a post-secondary degree. Notwithstanding the validity of this type of agreement, the courts retain the authority to decide not to be bound by these terms.
Terminating child support is often more complicated than it seems at first blush.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.