The parental obligation to provide financial support to children until they are emancipated is fundamental in New Jersey common law, statutory law, and case law. In an intact family, the law assumes the parents will provide for their children. Once parents are involved in the court system, judges have an obligation to ensure that a child’s basic needs are provided by his parents, who might otherwise neglect these responsibilities.
The State’s parens patriae responsibility to protect the rights of children is the source of its authority. Importantly, a child’s right to support is not “defeated merely because both parents are united in their determination to declare the child emancipated.” Contrary to popular belief, emancipation is also not automatic upon the child reaching a particular age. Instead, the definition of emancipation is guided by the law which currently holds a child will be considered emancipated when the fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child ends. This analysis is fact sensitive. The essential inquiry 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. A court’s emancipation determination involves a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child’s need, interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability, among other things.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, a child’s age does play a vital role in the determination of emancipation. A child’s attainment of the age of majority, currently eighteen, evidences “prima facie, but not conclusive, proof of emancipation”. At that point, the burden of proof to rebut the statutory presumption of emancipation shifts to the party or child seeking to continue the support obligation. In many situations, parents still have an economic duty to support children after their eighteenth birthday, such as cases in which the child has not yet graduated from high school or is enrolled in full-time educational programs. However, it remains the ultimate responsibility of the judiciary to address the fact-sensitive issue of emancipation when presented.
To avoid future litigation concerning the emancipation of a child, parents often include language in settlement agreements defining the terms of emancipation, with examples including:
- The child’s completion of full-time college;
- The child’s marriage;
- Death of the child;
- Entry by the child into any armed forces of any country;
- The child’s ceasing full-time attendance at college, unless for good cause shown, and his/her engaging in or having the ability to engage in full-time employment.
Once the child is emancipated, the court no longer has the authority to impose future child support but retains jurisdiction to enforce the enforcement of child support and arears due prior to the child’s emancipation.
The attorneys at Donahue, Hagan, Klein & Weisberg have experience in negotiating, mediating and litigating the issue of emancipation and can provide the necessary advice in this area of the law.
To avoid costs associated with going to court, parents in agreement about the emancipation can enter into an Agreement for the court to emancipate a child. For assistance on emancipation, please contact Donahue, Hagan, Klein & Weisberg.
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