All Grown Up? Top Ten Questions on Why – and When – Child Support Ends
As Seen in the Town Topics, Princeton, NJ (October 2008)
Jan L. Bernstein, Esq.
If you are divorced and have children, then you will likely pay or receive child support until your children are legally “emancipated.” Emancipation is well-defined under New Jersey law: A child is presumed to be emancipated at age eighteen, but typically child support will not terminate in New Jersey until graduation from college. Case law has carved out various circumstances that may delay emancipation. Some of the most frequently asked questions on this topic include the following:
1. Doesn’t Child Support “Automatically” End at Age Eighteen?
No, not necessarily, and not typically. The presumption of emancipation is rebuttable. A better indication of emancipation than age is self-sufficiency. As long as a child depends upon the parents—primarily, but not exclusively, financially—the payor has a support obligation. If the court finds that the child has moved beyond the “sphere of influence” of her or his parents, the child is emancipated.
2. What if My Child Turns Eighteen but Has Not Yet Graduated from High School?
An eighteen-year-old attending high school is not emancipated. Although she or he may vote, the dependent relationship with the parents still exists—a high school senior is probably eating three meals a day from home, borrowing the family car and getting spending money from mom and dad. In other words, he or she has not yet “obtain[ed] an independent status on his or her own.”
3. What if My Child Is in College?
A college student, under most circumstances, is still dependent on his or her parents. New Jersey courts have ruled that parents must continue to support a child who is enrolled in a full-time undergraduate program, whether living on campus or at home. The payor must continue to pay support even if, as is sometimes the case, he or she does not pay college tuition. However, it is typical that child support may reduce upon the child’s entry into college.
4. What if My Child Attends College Part-time?
A child attending college part-time and also working may be deemed emancipated. The inquiry is highly fact-sensitive, and the outcome would depend on which parent—the payor or the payee—makes the most compelling showing to the court. Whether a child works full-time and earns enough to support her- or himself may affect the outcome. As in all emancipation disputes, the parent seeking to emancipate the child bears the burden of proof.
5. What if My Child Dropped out of College but Wants to Re-enroll?
Not uncommonly, a child enrolls in college immediately after graduating from high school, then takes a hiatus from his or her college studies after several semesters. He or she may be able to return to college and regain unemancipated status. Important factors for the court when evaluating this issue would include the length of and reason for the hiatus.
6. What if My Child Finishes College and Heads Straight to Graduate School?
Typically, a child is emancipated upon graduation from college or trade school. However in limited cases, parents were required to continue to support a child enrolled in graduate or professional school. Again, the ruling would depend on the family and child’s particular circumstances.
7. What if My Child Enlists in the Military?
Certain events clearly render a child emancipated under New Jersey law. A child who enters the armed forces is deemed emancipated because the United States government, in effect, assumes the role of a parent. A child who enrolls in a military institution such as West Point may be emancipated even though she or he is essentially attending college.
8. What if My Child Marries?
A child who marries is deemed emancipated.
9. What if My Child Has a Health Problem?
Parents are obligated to support a child who has a physical or mental condition or disability, such as severe depression, that renders that child unable to care for her or himself. Under rare circumstances, a child may never be emancipated—for example, an adult child who suffers from a severe disability that arose prior to emancipation.
10. What if My Child Suffers from a Substance Abuse Problem?
Again, this is a very fact-sensitive issue. A child with a substance abuse problem may or may not be entitled to ongoing support from her or his parents. The outcome for an eighteen-year-old high school student who develops a substance abuse problem and temporarily drops out of high school would likely differ from the outcome for a twenty-year-old college student, who because of repeated drug addiction problems fails and drops out of college.
Emancipation and Your Circumstances
Every New Jersey family is different, and you may have your own unique questions about emancipation: What if your child joins the Peace Corps? Or delays college to travel the world? Or turns down salaried employment to volunteer for a presidential campaign? Often, the issue of emancipation is a “close call,” and the decision turns on which parent makes the most legally sound argument supported by proof that the court finds sufficient. Even if you believe the outcome of your application should be obvious, a court may see your family’s situation differently. Because so much is at stake financially, if you are involved in a dispute with your former spouse about whether child support should continue, you may need the assistance of an experienced attorney. A Phillips Nizer family law attorney can make an informed argument to the court on your behalf and increase your chance of obtaining a favorable outcome.