EVANSVILLE — A new state law set to lower the cutoff age for children receiving child support has Indiana's judges bracing for a wave of phone calls and petitions seeking to modify support orders.
The change passed by lawmakers during this year's legislative session lowers the age of emancipation from 21 to 19, but exempts support for education expenses. The law takes effect July 1 and applies to all child support orders, said its sponsor, state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford.
The change to Indiana's child support statute drew little attention during a session full of activity on issues such as right to work, full-day kindergarten funding and governmental reforms.
But Warrick County Superior Court Judge Robert Aylsworth said the law's shift of the emancipation age to two years earlier is "an enormous change" that's going to result in a surge of petitions seeking to modify support orders.
"I think we are going to see a run on the courthouses," Aylsworth told the Evansville Courier & Press.
The change brings Indiana in line with the vast majority of states. Steele said only two states and the District of Columbia currently extend child support obligations to age 21.
The biggest question among attorneys and judges so far has been whether it the change is retroactive to all child support cases, said Vanderburgh Superior Court Judge Richard D'Amour.
"My understanding is it will act retroactively to all cases. I think there will be some confusion in the public," he said. "I wish (the law) had been a little clearer."
Steele, who is a practicing attorney, said it was his interpretation of the law and his intention that it be retroactive.
"It's my opinion that it applies to everyone," he said.
D'Amour, who is on the Indiana Judicial Conference's domestic relations committee, said the law's wording — which says "the duty to support a child" — could lead to challenges when a support order specifically says the paying parent must pay until 21.
"Isn't that a contract between the parents? How can the Legislature invalidate contract law? They can't," he said.
Steele said that may be the case for those types of orders, but that most such decrees are more generally worded.
He said the change was actually recommended by legislative summer study committee in 2011. Age 19 was chosen because, Steele said, about 1 percent of Indiana high school students are still in school at that age and that would protect them from losing support before graduation.
Steele said that in his position as chairman of the Corrections, Criminal and Civil Law Committee in the senate he was long a supporter of keeping the current emancipation age.
"For many years I've actually killed it when it came to committee," he said. "I thought that you owed an obligation until 21."
One of the biggest reasons for his change of heart came when he heard testimony about how many fathers stop paying after age 18 despite the law.
"A lot of the mothers don't come to the prosecutors to collect it even though they probably could," he said.
As a result, the low collection rate for delinquent child support in cases of children 18 and over in Indiana sometimes lowers the overall success rate that's used to determine federal support for the offices, Steele said.
He said the law was worded to exempt postsecondary education support. Children receiving child support under orders that went into effect before the July 1 date can still file petitions for their educational needs until 21.
However, those with support orders effective after June 30 must file petitions for educational needs before 19.