Standing to sue for child support: A recent decision involving an adult child with disabilities

Despite mother’s arguments, the appellate court held that Texas law confers standing on a custodial parent or guardian at the time they file the suit, not after a child reaches the age of majority and otherwise does not have a custodial parent or guardian.

Children with disabilities can require support and care beyond the age of majority. During divorce, there is a window of opportunity before the court judgment, to address the financial needs and support for children, including children with disabilities. After a divorce is finalized, but while a child is still under the age or 18, a parent or guardian may initiate a court action by filing a lawsuit for ongoing child support for an adult child with a disability. Once the child is 18 and no longer living with either parent or a guardian, the second window of time expires.

In this recent case, a mother filed a lawsuit seeking child support and medial support for her adult child with a disability. At the time of filing, the child was an adult, living on her own, with no prior appointment of a guardian. The trial court granting child support to the mother was overturned by the appellate court, holding that mother lacked standing to sue where daughter was already over 18 and living on her own; standing to sue ended when daughter turned 18.

The relevant facts before the trial court:

Mother and father had two children, one daughter of which, born in 1993, suffered continuing medical problems that started prior to her 18 th birthday in 2011. When mother and father divorced in 1998, they entered into a settlement agreement, incorporated into the divorce, however the agreement was silent as to any ongoing medical problems or disabilities with either child.

In 2013, the adult daughter lived apart from her parents and worked at a job in childcare, despite her ongoing medical problems. During the year, she was diagnosed with Gastroparesis, a disorder slowing the movement of food from the stomach to small intestine. As a result of the diagnosis and multiple medical procedures, the daughter lost her job. Mother paid for several surgeries and helped her adult daughter several times a week with household work daughter was unable to perform due to her condition.

The trial court found in favor of mother and ordered father pay child support and medical support for the adult daughter with medical needs.

Not long after the 2013 diagnosis of Gastroparesis, mother sued father for child support and medical support to cover the expenses for their adult daughter's care and expenses. After a trial court granted child support and medical support to mother, for caring for her adult daughter with a medical condition, father appealed. An issue before the court was whether mother had standing to file the lawsuit for child support when neither parent claimed to have physical custody or guardianship, and the adult daughter was living on her own.

Father appealed the trial court decision and won based on mother's lack of standing to sue, and he relied on the fact that the adult daughter's disability was never mentioned in the divorce.

In order to cause a lawsuit to proceed in court, the individual bringing the suit must have standing to sue. Standing is the legal right to a file and proceed with a cause of action based on facts and circumstances as they apply to the law. The applicable law in this matter was Texas Family Code Section 154.303, stated in pertinent part, "A suit provided by this subchapter may be filed only by...a parent of the child or another person having physical custody or guardianship of the child under a court order. "

While father asserted that mother did not have standing to sue because their adult daughter lived on her own, mother argued that the statutory language did not require physical custody or guardianship under the circumstance where the child is disabled. A question for the appellate court was whether the Texas Legislature intended physical custody and guardianship as the only possible pre-requisites for standing to bring a child support lawsuit, or whether matters involving adult disability may be an exception to the general statutory rule requiring custody or guardianship to have standing to sue.

Mother argued that the original language of the statute conferring standing simply stated "parent" when originally enacted, and that in 1997 the statute was broadened to include "custody or guardianship." Therefore, mother suggests the legislative intent could also include situations involving adult disability.

Despite mother's arguments, the appellate court held that Texas law confers standing on a custodial parent or guardian at the time they file the suit, not after a child reaches the age of majority and otherwise does not have a custodial parent or guardian.

The appellate court ruled in favor of the father and noted that the presence of disability does not give rise to standing to sue for child support and medical support as mother did. The court stated, "The parent of an institutionalized disabled child who is or is about to reach the age of eighteen may obtain standing by being appointed the child's guardian. " Standing to bring a suit for child support ended in 2011 when the daughter turned 18.

Dallas, Denton and Collin County Board Certified divorce and family law attorney, Mark Scroggins, along with their team at Scroggins Family Law represent clients in a variety of divorce and family law matters.

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[i] In The Interest of C.J.N.-S. And J.C.N.-S, Number 13-14-00729-CV, Court of Appeals for the Thirteenth District of Texas, on appeal from the 131 st District Court of Bexar County, Texas.

Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 154.303(a)(1).

See HNi above at page 8.

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