Child Support Following a Parent's Death

a mother holding her daughter in her arms

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The death of a child's parent is a tragic time all around, made all the more stressful by the financial uncertainty that may come with it. Namely, how does the death of either parent impact child support payments? This is a complicated issue that will vary state by state and with individual circumstances, and it warrants legal council on behalf of the surviving parent and children. State laws govern child support issues and enforcement so it is vital to research the rules in your state.

However, the general answer is that child support payments will likely continue in some form after one parent dies, but steps need to be taken to ensure this happens and determine if any changes need to be made. But each family's case will be different. No matter your specific circumstance, it is best to consult an attorney. Whether the deceased is the custodial or non-custodial parent will determine what steps you should take next.

Death of a Non-Custodial Parent

The death of the non-custodial parent may leave the custodial parent wondering how they will be able to continue to support their children. Generally, though, the legal and financial obligation of the deceased parent to the children does not end with their death. Thus, in many cases, child support will be ordered to continue but this is not guaranteed. Here are a few pertinent questions to ask when determining how to continue receiving support.

Does the parent have a life insurance policy that names the child as the beneficiary?

If so, the surviving parent should call the insurance company to begin the process of collecting on the policy on behalf of the child. You will need a copy of the death certificate, which is important to have on hand for pursuing claims from life insurance policies as well as any of the avenues below.

Was the deceased parent gainfully employed for a period of time?

If so, the surviving parent may be able to seek benefits on behalf of the child from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Generally, children up to age 19 (and still in high school, up to grade 12), are eligible to receive SSA benefits. Additionally, children with a disability that began before age 22 can continue to draw benefits into adulthood. These benefits are also available in the case of a parent's disability.

Does the parent have any assets?

A parent's estate may include cars, houses, bank accounts, and retirement funds, such as a 401k or an IRA, as well as any debts or taxes owed. If a parent does not have life insurance, the estate will likely become responsible for paying any child support payments that are owed. First, determine who the executor or personal representative of the estate is. This role is appointed by the state, normally following the wishes of the deceased.

Was a will in place?

If the deceased parent had a will, it is important to determine what the will provides for the children and if other heirs are named (such as a spouse or other family members). If the parent died without a will in place, the distribution of assets will be determined by state law and at the discretion of the applicable probate court. An estate lawyer can help walk you through this often complicated terrain.

Death of a Custodial Parent

In the event that the custodial parent dies, the priority is determining who will care for the children. Candidates may include the non-custodial parent, grandparents, other relatives, or friends of the family. Again, each situation is unique. Ideally, custody or legal guardianship is something the parents had discussed and made a plan for prior to the death of the custodial parent. Having a will in place spelling out these wishes helps to make preferences clear and streamlines the process of setting up new a new custody arrangement.

If the non-custodial parent assumes custody, they may be able to seek a child support modification. They may also seek child support from the custodial parent's estate to help with the expenses associated with raising children in addition to any Social Security or life insurance benefits.

If the non-custodial parent does not assume custody of the child after a custodial parent dies, whoever does take on custody may be eligible to pursue child support claims from the surviving parent. In this case, the child's new caretaker may be able to collect child support from the non-custodial parent and seek support from the deceased custodial parent's estate.

When the Deceased Parent Had a Partner

Matters can become more complicated if the deceased non-custodial parent had a partner. It's not uncommon for this person to continue receiving notices from the family court when the deceased was charged with paying child support. If the partner stands to inherit from the estate or owned property jointly with the deceased, you will want to determine how that impacts the claims of the dependent children and vice versa. The distribution of assets from the deceased's estate and how the partner plays into the will are all issues that an estate lawyer can assist you with.

It is important for the surviving partner to call the family court to explain the partner's death. The court will likely require a death certificate as evidence and to verify the claim. In most cases, it should be mailed directly to the family court.

Seeking Legal Advice

It's terribly unfortunate when a parent dies and the priority is always helping the surviving children cope. However, just like the love the parent had for their children, the obligation to support a child does not die with them. It is in the child's best interest that the surviving parent or legal guardian continues to receive support so that the household of the child can be maintained without interruption.

Legal help navigating these complex issues is almost always the best first step in protecting the surviving children's interests. A parent who needs answers regarding the death of another parent should seek help from qualified family law and estate attornies in the state to discuss child support and inheritance. Additionally, an estate planning attorney can help parents prepare for unforeseen circumstances, such as death or disability.

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