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Child Emancipation

There is often a misperception that once a child reaches the age of 18, he or she is emancipated and the parents are no longer financially responsible. That is true in many States, but not in New Jersey.   Instead, in New Jersey, Courts must look to whether or not there is evidence that the child has “moved beyond the sphere of influence of his or her parents.”[i]

In the child support context, emancipation is defined as the time when a child is expected to be self-supporting and the parent is relieved of his or her duty to support the child.[ii]

There is no fixed time when a child is deemed emancipated.[iii]

Children of divorced parents have the right “to be supported at least according to the standard of living to which they had grown accustomed prior to the separation of their parents.” A child’s right to support is enforceable not only at the insistence of the custodial parent, but at the child’s insistence, as well. As an example, there have been cases where a child has brought a law suit against his or her parent(s) to compel the payment of child support and assistance with college expenses; some of those children have been successful.

The right of child support belongs to the child and not to the parent.  Parents cannot waive their obligation to pay child support upon the child’s reaching the age of 18.[iv] “It is fundamental that the right to child support belongs to the child and may not be waived by a custodial parent.”[v]

The court must look at all relevant circumstances in the case to determine whether the child is emancipated. Where the child has been continuing her education on a full-time status, there is an indication that the child is not emancipated.[vi]

There is typically a bar against retroactive modification of support in New Jersey. However, there is an exception that allows a retroactive termination of a support obligation based on emancipation of a child.[vii] If you are the parent receiving support, it is extremely important that you speak with an attorney if you believe emancipation may be an issue. There have been cases where a parent has been ordered to refund the other parent significant sums of child support due to the passage of time.

Some Examples of Emancipation:

  • An eighteen-year-old attending high school is not emancipated.
  • A college-age child who takes a hiatus from college and works full-time is not emancipated so long as she has not moved beyond her parents’ sphere of influence.
  • The court may order the parents to continue to support a twenty-three year old child pursuing a post-graduate law degree.[viii]
  • A child was emancipated where he had worked full time prior to going back to school.[ix]
  • A child will be emancipated when he/she has married.
  • A child was emancipated when he was inducted to military service.[x]
  • A child was emancipated when he was a 20-year-old cadet enrolled at West Point.[xi]
  • Courts have held that, under appropriate circumstances, disability may extend the time in which a child is deemed unemancipated.[xii]
  • The adult son of a divorced husband who became so disabled as to be incapable of maintaining himself because of a mental illness/emotional disorder that pre-existed his eighteenth birthday was deemed unemancipated and the husband was required to contribute to the cost of his care and maintenance.[xiii]
  • A teenager who is still financially dependent on her parents, still lives at home and who in terms of her age, educational pursuits and other circumstances would otherwise be patently unemancipated is not rendered emancipated simply because she has given birth to her own child.[xiv]
  • The Appellate division held that failure of an individual to pass his college courses, reinforced by his failure to return the next semester, virtually mandated the conclusion that he was emancipated.
  • Although proof of receipt of Social Security Income benefits is a factor to be considered in determining emancipation, same is not conclusive as to the issue.[xv]

Every family is different; often, the issue of emancipation is a “close call.” As with all family law matters, the inquiry is extremely fact-sensitive and it is important that you consult with an attorney to discuss your case. Even if you believe the outcome of your application should be obvious, a court may not see your family’s situation the same way and the law may be different than you imagine. So much is at stake financially and emotionally, especially as a college education becomes so critical in the current economic climate. If you are involved in a dispute about whether child support should continue, you may need the assistance of an experienced attorney.

Given the complexities involved with Emancipation and Child Support, we advise you to contact one of our experienced family law attorneys at Gebhardt & Kiefer at 908-735-5161.  We handle support and family law issues throughout New Jersey. 

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[i] Keegan v. Keegan, 326 N.J. Super. 289 (App. Div. 1999).
[ii] Quinn v. Johnson, 247 N.J. Super. 572, 578 (Ch. Div. 1991).
[iii] Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543 (1982).
[iv] Pattetta v. Pattetta, 358 N.J. Super. 90(App. Div. 2003).
[v] Gotlib v. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. 295 (App. Div. 2008).
[vi] See Limpert v. Limpert, 119 N.J.Super. 438 (App. Div. 1972).
[vii] Mahoney v. Pennell, 285 N.J. Super. 638, 643 (App. Div. 1995).
[viii] Ross v. Ross, 167 N.J.Super. 441 (Ch. Div. 1979).
[ix] Sakovits v. Sakovits, 178 N.J.Super. 623 (Ch. Div. 1981).
[x] Slep v. Slep, 43 N.J.Super. 538 (Ch. Div. 1957).
[xi] Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J.Super. 593 (Ch. Div. 1995).
[xii] Monmouth County Div. of Social Services v. C.R., 316 N.J. Super. 600 (Ch. Div. 1998).
[xiii] Kruvant v. Kruvant, 100 N.J. Super. 107 (App. Div. 1968).
[xiv] Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301 (App. Div. 1997).
[xv] Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 803-04 (1999).