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Emancipation in the Context of Family Law

Sep 28, 2015 | Written by: William W. Goodwin, Jr., Esq. |

When a layperson encounters the term "emancipation," he or she is likely to harken back to the Civil War and the famous Proclamation issued by then President Lincoln declaring all slaves to be free as of January 1, 1863. However, for family lawyers in New Jersey, the term takes on a completely different meaning.

In family law, "emancipation" is an important concept - or more accurately, a status - relating to the financial support of children by their parents. It represents the difference between a parent having a legal obligation or not having one. In other words, if the child is "emancipated," the parents no longer have a legal (as opposed to moral) obligation to support him or her, whether directly or indirectly (by paying child support to the other parent or paying for college tuition and related expenses). Conversely, until the child is emancipated, those legal obligations remain in place.

This raises the obvious ancillary question: how do we determine whether a child is or is not emancipated so we can assess whether a financial support obligation remains in place? As in so many other areas of family law, the answer is "it depends." Stated more artfully, the courts in New Jersey have often held that the determination of whether a child should be emancipated is a "fact-sensitive one." More specifically, but perhaps no more illuminating, the issue is whether the child has moved "beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own."

Fortunately, there are some ground rules upon which family lawyers can rely in guiding their clients in this otherwise murky area. First, age, while not dispositive, is a critical factor. A child is presumed not to be emancipated prior to reaching the age of 18. Not surprisingly, a child is presumed to be emancipated upon reaching that age.

There are many exceptions to both of these rules. For example, a 16-year-old who drops out of high school with no intention of continuing his or her education is likely to be emancipated. The same would apply to a 17-year-old who marries or enlists in the military service. On the other hand, it is not at all uncommon for a child to remain un-emancipated, and thereby entitled to ongoing financial support, beyond the age of 18. The most common scenario involves a child (or young adult) who is a full-time college student. In that situation, a support obligation often remains extant until the child's 22nd or even 23rd birthday. Of course, a disabled child might never be emancipated.

Finally, good lawyering involves not only advising clients and advocating for them in court. It also requires skillful negotiation and careful drafting of documents. To avoid, or at least minimize, the expense and risk of litigation, lawyers should always carefully and specifically define emancipation in their settlement agreements.


William W. Goodwin, Jr., Esq. is certified by the NJ Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Attorney. He is also 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. Goodwin at 908-735-5161 or via email.