A Divorce Decree Awarding Joint Legal Custody May Control Beyond Your Child’s 18th Birthday

Estate Planning Practice Group

By Estate Planning Practice Group

Are you the divorced parent of a child with a developmental disability? Is your child approaching age 18? Does your divorce decree award you and your ex-spouse joint legal custody of your child? Are you thinking of filing for guardianship of your child? If you answer yes to all of these questions, then you may need to file a motion to modify your decree of dissolution instead of petitioning for guardianship in the probate court.

The case of In the Matter of S.J.M. presented just such a situation. In 2015, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, held that the St. Charles County Probate Court erred as a matter of law when it entered a judgment of incapacity and appointed a sole guardian for an 18 year old individual with Down’s Syndrome where the parents’ 2007 decree of dissolution awarded them joint legal custody over their child. The Eastern District found the decree of dissolution was still in effect when the probate court rendered its judgment in 2014, and therefore the probate court produced inconsistent judgments.

Relying upon the rationale of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District in the 2005 case of Scruggs v. Scruggs, which addressed the question of modification of dissolution decrees related to child support payments, the Eastern District reasoned that the Missouri legislature extended parental support beyond a child’s 18th birthday in certain circumstances. In Scruggs, the Western District held that the emancipation provisions pertaining to child support payments also apply to custody orders in dissolution cases. Support payments would usually terminate when the child turns 18 and is emancipated. In S.J.M., the Eastern District focused on the exception set forth in RSMo 452.340.5, which extends support obligations beyond the child’s 18th birthday where the child is enrolled in and attending school, until the child completes the school program or turns 21, whichever occurs first. And as Judge Richter aptly noted in his separate concurring opinion, another exception set forth in RSMo 452.340.4 extends the support requirement “if the child is physically or mentally incapacitated from supporting himself and insolvent and unmarried. . . .”

So, based upon the Scruggs precedent and analogizing guardianship to legal custody because their duties are so similar, the Eastern District concluded in S.J.M. that the 2005 dissolution decree awarding the child’s parents joint legal custody operated to extend the custody arrangement beyond the child’s 18th birthday. Therefore, the probate court’s judgment appointing the child’s mother as sole guardian (and excluding father) was inconsistent with the decree of dissolution. Because the judgments were inconsistent, the Eastern District held that the probate court erred as a matter of law and reversed and remanded the case back to the probate court for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

So, for divorced parents who are considering guardianship of a child with a developmental disability, it is important to inform your attorneys of the terms of your decree of dissolution, especially the provisions pertaining to custody and support obligations.

In certain circumstances, it may be more appropriate to file a motion to modify the decree instead of pursuing a guardianship action in probate court. And, although the Eastern District determined that the probate court erred, as Judge Richter also pointed out in his concurring opinion, the decision in S.J.M. does not resolve the questions of how exactly the litigants should have proceeded or what paperwork would be necessary to secure future treatment and care for a child in such a situation. That will be a question for a different case and/or for the Missouri legislature to resolve.

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