A new California divorce law allows a spouse receiving income from child support to seek an increase in his or her spousal support upon the maturity of the minor child. This law, (Family Code §4326), which is set to terminate on January 1, 2011, considers the loss of child support income incurred by a parent when the child becomes no longer eligible for support, (e.g. reaches the age of 18 or graduates high school) to be a “change in circumstances” substantial enough to justify a request to modify their spousal support.
This new law presents a departure from prior court rulings. In a 1999 case, In re Marriage of Lautsbaugh (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 1131, 85 Cal.Rptr.2d 688, a California Appeals Court reversed a decision granting a wife a $350 increase in her monthly support payments. The wife claimed such an increase was justified because her daughter had graduated from high school, and was no longer eligible for child support.
In reversing the trial court, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the loss of child support payments upon the daughter’s reaching maturity was contemplated by both parties during the initial divorce proceedings and was therefore an expected change. The court went to state that a change previously accounted for, cannot justify an increase in spousal support. In the end, the court held that when the daughter graduated, her father’s child support obligations terminated.
While the rationale of the Court of Appeals makes sense, the new law effectively nullifies Lautsbaugh and seemingly broadens the definition of a “material change” to include previously contemplated events. In addition, the provision interrelates the two types of support, which have been historically separate and should remain that way.
Although this current state of the law does not go so far as to require California family courts to now consider modifying a spouse’s support anytime a change in financial status occurs, it definitely eases the burden of proof. Whether the parent will be required to show that their expenses, and not those of the child, justify a change in support, remains to be seen. Whatever the eventual outcome, Family Code §4326 will likely be a source of much debate in the coming years, especially if it remains in effect after January 2011.