Shouldn’t having custody of a child terminate child support per se?

Posted Friday, May 13th, 2011 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Child Support, Jurisprudence, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to General Public

Under S.C. Code § 63-3-530 (17) “orders for child support run until the child is eighteen years of age or until the child is married or becomes self-supporting.” It has been my experience that when a girl under the age of eighteen gives birth and keeps her child, the family court does not terminate whatever child support obligation exists on this young mother.  Since few of these teen mothers are “self-supporting,” such a ruling comports with the language of § 63-3-530 (17).

However, while § 63-3-530 (17) says nothing about emancipation terminating child support, there is much case law noting that emancipation terminates child support. See e.g., Webb v. Sowell, 387 S.C. 328, 692 S.E.2d 543 (2010).  A teen mother might not be self-supporting but I don’t see how the law can consider the act of taking custody of another human being to be anything other than per se emancipation.  By what logic can someone be legally in control of another’s life but not be legally in control of one’s own life?  To use a picayune example, if teen mom wants to feed her child carrots but the teen’s parent wants her to feed the infant broccoli, whose decision stands?

One can easily understand the family court’s logic for not terminating child support on teen mothers.  Maternal grandmother (who is typically the person with custody of teen moms in child support situations) has her own burden increased by the addition of a grandchild to the household, especially since few unmarried teenage mothers are capable of raising a child without substantial assistance.  Reducing or terminating this woman’s child support at a time of increased stress is counterproductive, even cruel.

Yet legally compelling parents to support emancipated children is horrible jurisprudence.  Part of being an adult is accepting responsibility for one’s own actions and one’s own life.  Deciding to become a parent is a quintessentially adult decision.  To treat it as though it is not–to pretend that one can parent a child while still being a legal child oneself–is one of the more dangerous fallacies our culture is increasingly accepting.   Allowing people to take on adult responsibilities while treating them as children is a bad idea in general.  Allowing them to become parents while treating them as children is frightening.

Women aren’t wrong when they claim parenting is the most important job in the world.   Humans are creatures both self-aware and social; the act of parenting is the act of transmitting culture and values from one generation to the next.  To pretend this is a job children are capable of doing is wrong on so many levels: it denigrates what should be considered an elevated task; it courts–almost mandates–failure; it encourages those least capable of assuming this responsibility to undertake it.

I don’t want to be part of a culture that says that parenting is something a child can do.  A culture that truly believes parenting is “child’s play” is ultimately doomed.  It would help if our culture did a better job of discouraging teen pregnancy.  But when girls under the age of eighteen become pregnant, our culture needs to tell them to either become an adult and accept the responsibilities of adulthood or give their child up for adoption.  Telling such mothers they can become parents but remain children is dishonest to them, cruel to their children, and ultimately damaging our society.

Having custody of a child should be per se emancipation and should end any support obligations regarding the new parent.  While it might seem cruel to reduce the financial support for such young parents, it is even crueler to allow their children to be raised by children.


2 thoughts on Shouldn’t having custody of a child terminate child support per se?

  1. Roy Stuckey says:

    Greg, This is one of those rare occasions where I disagree with you? Where did this come from? Do you have actually have clients who want to throw their children and grandchildren out of the house and to not provide any support for them?

    I am certainly not in favor of sex between children or unwed pregnancies at any age. I would not have been happy if my sons had produced babies before they grew up, but I hope I would have acted with restraint, love, and charity, at least for the baby’s sake as I’ve known many people to do. And as I am pretty sure you would do if a baby comes into your family unexpectedly.

    Telling a child to become an adult will not result in that child acting responsibly. For that matter, telling over-18 youngsters to act like adults doesn’t often work, either. Nor would the adoption of your per se emancipation rule deter underage pregnancies. The affected children would have no idea that the rule existed until it was too late. What will you propose next, per se emancipation for all children who have underage sex?

    As you pointed out, your position is contrary to longstanding statutory and case law in South Carolina, and I suppose in all other states. Even moreso. Section 63-17-350 allows DSS to seek support from grandparents of children born to unmarried minors. So, grandparents must not only support their minor child, they may be required to support their child’s baby as well.

    In my opinion, 18 is too young to expect kids to be self-sufficient. If it had not been for the Vietnam war’s drafting of 18 year olds, the age of emancipation might still be 21 years old, as it is in some states. I think that is a more reasonable age to tell someone to act like an adult.

  2. Mary! says:

    I fail to see how the severity of the consequences society imposes on a child has anything to do with the biological reality of what level that child is at developmentally in regards to their cognition.

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