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A Moral Obligation Versus a Legal Obligation

May 30, 2019 | Written by: William J. Rudnik, Esq. |

As a divorce attorney, I often have clients who question whether their spouses should or should not do something.  This may have to do with the finances or the children, but it is a common question.  Many times, the answer has to do with the difference between a moral obligation and a legal obligation. 

In divorce cases, a legal obligation is one that is required under the law in New Jersey.  For example, in New Jersey parents have a legal obligation to financially support their children until they are emancipated.  However, legal obligations can differ from state to state.  In New Jersey, in addition to children being unemancipated and needing financial support from their parents while in college, divorced parents also have a legal obligation to contribute to their children’s college education as long as they are financially able.  In other states, child support or the legal obligation to support children automatically ends when a child turns 18 and graduates from high school.  Most states do not require parents to legally contribute to their child’s college education.

Moral obligations are typically based on what an individual believes is the “right thing to do” in a given circumstance.  No one in the court system enforces moral obligations. Moral obligations often go further than legal obligations.  For example, while a child may be emancipated when he or she graduates from high school and turns 18 (if the child does not go to college), or may be emancipated when graduating from college, many parents will continue to financially support their child on an as-needed basis long after the child is emancipated.  While a parent may have a legal obligation to contribute a certain amount toward a child’s education, many times parents feel a moral obligation to contribute even more, sometimes because their own parents paid for their education.

Although the court enforces legal obligations, it cannot enforce moral obligations.  Each person’s moral compass may be different, and the court is not in a position to determine which is the “correct” or “right” moral thing to do.  The closest the court comes to enforcing moral obligations has to do with the best interest standard for custody of children.  While the best interest analysis is a legal one in divorce cases, it is essentially based upon the court’s opinion of what is in the child’s best interest.  This may include which parent a child should live with, which schedule is best for a child, which school a child should attend, etc.  While not exactly a moral issue, this is the closest a court will come to determining what is “right” for a child.

In certain situations, a legal obligation in divorce law may go beyond a moral obligation.  It is simply dependent on an individual’s moral compass and what he or she views as the “right” thing to do in a given circumstance.  However, generally, there are many circumstances where the “right” thing to do in a divorce case is not a legal obligation. Often these circumstances relate to how parties treat each other in a divorce.  While there is no legal obligation for parties to get along or cooperate during the divorce, parties who do cooperate and communicate with each other during a divorce (and after a divorce) do so because it is the “right” thing to help settle their case and it is better for their children.  There are many instances throughout our lives where we can do the “right” thing even when we are not required to under the law.  This can be as basic as holding the door for someone to as significant as financially helping someone in need. Everyone, whether getting divorced or not, should always try to do the right thing even if it goes beyond a legal obligation.

If you have any questions regarding this issue, or family law in general, please contact me at 908-735-5161 or via email.


William J. Rudnik, Esq. is certified by the NJ Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Law Attorney.  In addition to handling divorce litigation, he is qualified as a Mediator in the field of Family Law under the New Jersey Court rules, and he is trained in Collaborative Divorce. Contact Mr. Rudnik at 908-735-5161 or via email.

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