Emancipation and Child Support in New Jersey

teenagerN.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67 automatically terminates support when a child reaches age 19 and became effective on February 1, 2017. However, couples may still negotiate settlement agreements that will be incorporated by their divorce judgment, in which they decide to treat emancipation of their children differently.

In a recent unpublished decision, a mother appealed from an order emancipating her 19-year-old son and terminating the father’s child support duties. The couple had married in 1986 and after having three children, divorced in 2006.

Their divorce judgment incorporated a settlement agreement that included a provision on emancipation, stating that it would occur when the children completed high school or upon reaching 18 years of age if a child didn’t go to college. Emancipation wouldn’t occur until after the child finished four years of college if the child went to college, as long as the child pursued it with reasonable diligence.

Under the agreement, in no case would emancipation happen beyond the 23rd birthday of the child unless he became ill or injured. Before the settlement agreement, the plaintiff had primary custody of their children, while the defendant was required to pay child support. The son who was the subject of this case graduated high school in 2014, at which point he continued to live at home with his mom, didn’t have a job, and was taking one class at the community college.

His academic performance had deteriorated over the course of high school, although his parents saw him as very intelligent. A psychological assessment showed he had emotional problems that affected his ability to perform well in school. He was provided with weekly counseling through the school district. He wasn’t allowed to graduate in 2013 and was offered an online program that would allow him to finish up the following January. He didn’t take the opportunity and graduated the following summer. At that time, he was considered multiply disabled by the school.

The case arose when the mother moved to enforce payment of child support by the father. The father sought a termination of the child support obligation. At first, the judge granted the mother’s motion but reconsidered and then ordered a plenary hearing. At the hearing, only the parties testified, and certain facts were stipulated. A high school grade report was admitted into evidence.

The lower court had entered an order after a plenary hearing. It found that the son was the age of majority, was enrolled in a course in community college after graduating from high school, and wasn’t disabled or incapable of supporting himself. It also found the plaintiff had a burden to rebut a presumption of emancipation but didn’t, and therefore any financial support provided by either parent was voluntary.

The plaintiff appealed. She argued that the lower court had failed to consider a fundamental dependent relationship between the son and his parents. She also argued the son had a disability, and the father hadn’t relinquished custody such that he should be relieved of a child support obligation. She cited to case law that stated a disabled child shouldn’t be emancipated until he or she no longer had a disability.

The appellate court explained that the legal argument was correct, but she had no basis for her factual claims about her son being disabled. It explained that when someone claims that an adult child has a mental health condition, he or she has to prove that those issues interfere with his or her ability to be independent in order to rebut the presumption toward emancipation. The school records could not substitute for expert testimony or other proof that the son suffered from an illness that stopped him from supporting himself.

If you are considering divorce in Bergen County, and you are concerned about child support obligations, it is important to retain an experienced and aggressive child support attorney to seek an appropriate outcome. Contact the lawyers of Leopold Law at (201) 345-5907 or through our online form. We have attorneys available who can handle all aspects of a divorce and post-divorce family law matters.