In a 5-4 decision in June, the Supreme Court majority reached two conclusions. It said that nothing in state law requires parents to financially support their offspring after they turn 21, and it also said the Legislature has not passed a law to require parents to pay support for, or on the behalf of, adult disabled children.
The decision came in a 2011 case from Hinds County in which a woman sought modification of alimony and child support from her ex-husband for the care of their son who was over age 21 and suffered from a serious medical ailment.
The majority sided with the chancery judge who ruled against the modification.
The issue has been raised in a similar case from Madison County now before the Supreme Court. And the justices have asked the parties in the new case and the attorney general’s office to weigh in on whether the denial of child support to disabled children over the age of 21 who cannot take care of themselves violates the 14th Amendment, which grants equal protection under the law.
What the justices said they wanted to hear from the parties in the Madison County case is “whether equal protection would be violated by an interpretation that child support may not be ordered for adult children who are mentally or physically incapable of self-support.”
Equal protection was not raised in either case; however, the Supreme Court raised the issue on its own.
That, an attorney said, could be significant.
Sarah Ann Ellis, a Jackson attorney who joined in representing one of the parties in the Hinds County case, said her general impression is the court is “possibly trying to find a way to order child support for an adult disabled child, and when I say disabled, I mean not capable of being self-supportive. My hope is they will find a way to do that.”
Ellis said parties in child support cases sometimes will agree to continue support beyond the age of 21.
“But a judge doesn’t have authority under our statutory scheme to order child support past 21 regardless of the circumstances. Many surrounding states have statutes that do that,” Ellis said.
In the Hinds County case, the Supreme Court’s minority, led by former lawmaker and Justice Leslie B. King, said the case should be returned to the chancellor who should determine if the child is under a disability that renders him incapable of self-support and thus was never emancipated, and if child support should continue.
Emancipation refers to the age at which a child leaves the control and responsibility of a parent or guardian. In some states the age is 18; in Mississippi and others it is 21.
King argued he believes “the Legislature has provided the chancery courts the authority to order a parent to support an adult disabled child.”
Justice Randy Pierce, another former legislator, said: “the Legislature has not created a statutory scheme whereby parents may be required to pay support for, or on the behalf of, adult disabled children.”
Pierce said for the Supreme Court to rule otherwise would “violate the separation of powers.”
King said in instances that a child is disabled before reaching 21 and the child is unable to be emancipated, the courts should be able to order child support to continue as long as the child remains unemancipated.
Presiding Justice Mike Randolph, who wrote the majority opinion, said under state law, “the duty of a parent to support its child does not extend beyond the child’s minority which terminates when the child reaches twenty-one years of age, as provided by our Legislature.”
“The power to grant the authority to require parents in Mississippi to support their adult children financially is confided to a separate magistracy: the Legislature. Our courts are without the constitutional power to declare otherwise,” Randolph wrote.