Little Known Missouri Law Could Force You
To Refund Child Support You've Received
"He can't possibly win, can he?" asked "Sandy", a divorced mother of three. Her ex-husband was suing to have their oldest son, a junior in college, "emancipated"-- that is, declared an adult with the result that child support would no longer be required for him. Further, he was suing Sandy to refund the last two and a half years of child support he had paid on that son's behalf.
The lawsuits were filed under a little-known provision of Missouri law. According to this statute, the parent paying child support is entitled to documentary proof, at the beginning of each college semester, identifying how many credit hours the child will take and what courses. And, at the end of each semester, that parent is to receive documentation showing how many credit hours were earned. These documents are to be issued by the school...a letter from the other parent will not suffice.
Importantly, the failure to comply can result in the child's emancipation as of the first time such information was not provided and can require the custodial parent to refund all child support payments received for that child since the first failure to provide the information.
The law has two purposes: To prevent a parent from collecting child support to which they are no longer entitled, and to encourage both parents to be involved in their child's education. In Missouri, one determination of emancipation is if the child does not continue his/her education after high school...a child must be enrolled full-time in college or other institution of higher learning by the October after high school graduation. "Full-time" means carrying and passing 12 credit hours, although a lesser number is required for children working at least 15 hours a week, or for learning disabled children, or "unless the manifest circumstances of the child dictate otherwise".
Even well-intentioned parents can have difficulty complying because getting the documentation usually involves follow-through by the child. Since almost all college students are 18 years old, their education records are protected by privacy laws. Colleges can no longer provide enrollment records or grade reports to parents without the child's authorization. ...Even if the parents are the ones paying the bills!
The custodial parent has to make sure their child provides the required documents, or see that their child signs the authorization required by the school so the information can be sent directly to the parent. As most parents know, "follow-through" on a parental request is usually not a child's highest priority and this is where compliance can unravel.
However, the law is unforgiving. The failure to provide the documents just once can result in the child's permanent emancipation. If the child doesn't deliver, the last resort is to subpoena the records from the school.
Sandy's problem resulted from not taking the father's requests for information seriously. With two other kids, and a full-time job, she had relied on her son to send dad the grades and keep him informed. Plus, she thought his insistence on receiving advance notice of what courses their son was taking overbearing. She didn't always know what he was taking, just that he was on track to get his degree.
The father felt left out. He consulted with an attorney and learned of this option to sue. His persistence, and the fact that he had clearly informed Sandy of the law's requirements, strengthened his case. I suggested that we negotiate a settlement. In the end, based on Sandy's commitment to keep dad in the loop and to make sure that he received all the information he was entitled to, dad withdrew his lawsuit, convinced he had made his point, and "junior" went on to get his degree.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.
Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or or Visit Web Site
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