Unlike other states (such as Pennsylvania), New Jersey does not automatically emancipate a child at the age of eighteen (18)/graduation from high school.  Instead, New Jersey utilizes a nebulous standard of whether or not the child has “Moved Beyond the Sphere and Influence of their Parents.”

Accordingly, New Jersey law is very fact-sensitive.  In fact, in some instances a previously emancipated child may even be ordered “unemancipated.”

Here’s an overview of New Jersey emancipation law:

Emancipation Law in Marital Settlement Agreement

Often times, the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (“Divorce Agreement”), or custody agreement will state that a child is considered emancipated upon certain events, such as the child’s graduation from post-secondary school, falling below ful-time status (less than 12 credits) at a post-secondary school, marriage, joining the military, or reaching a certain age (such as 22 or 23).

However, New Jersey law states that a parent cannot bargain away a child’s rights.  As the right to continued support (even if paid to a parent) belongs to the child, the Court may determine, in its own discretion, hold that a child is not emancipated even if a strict reading of the parties’ emancipation language may lead to a different result.

Sphere and Influence

A “prima facie” case of emancipation occurs when a child reaches the age of 18, but this is rebuttable if the other side (often the parent of primary residence) can prove that the child has not move beyond his or her parent’s “sphere of influence.”  Some evidence of “sphere of influence” includes whether the child resides at home, whether the child is employed full-time, the age of the child, the abilities of the child, any disabilities, and the educational status of the child.  Often times, the educational status of the child will be the most important factor in adjudicating emancipation.

Motion Practice

Often times, the parties will not agree to the emancipation of a child.  In those instances, the party seeking emancipation will need to petition the Court in the form of a Motion.  Both parties will then present evidence regarding the child and whether or not emancipation is appropriate.  The judge will then make a determination as to whether or not the child should be emancipated and how that may affect child support (if there are additional children) and other factors in the parties post-divorce life.

Changes in New Jersey Emancipation Law

One area of New Jersey Family law that remains extremely fact-sensitive is emancipation of a minor.  Prior cases have proven that, in certain circumstances, a child may not be emancipated by the court even if both parents agree upon the emancipation.  The idea is that the right to support belongs to the child, and thus cannot be waived by a parent.

A new published case this week also ruled that a child who reaches the age of majority, may waive the right to support, and seek emancipation even if the court feels he or she is not emancipated.

Another recent case confirmed the concept of unemancipation: the notion that a child who has previously been found emancipated may become “unemancipated” should circumstances change.  It all continues the tradition in New Jersey of nebulous emancipation issues.

Unlike in many states, such as our neighbor Pennsylvania, emancipation does not occur at a set age.  Moreover, both parents are generally responsible for contributing to their children’s college costs.  Recent cases have also made changes as to how child support will be calculated when a child moves away for college.

In short, the changes in the law further “muddy the waters,” of an often confusing area of family law.

Some Events That May Lead to Emancipation

Some of the events that may lead to emancipation of a child include: that child’s marriage, the child’s graduation from college, full-time employment, joining the military (although merely joining the ROTC would not be sufficient), and graduation from high school if not pursuing college.

Again, these matters are always fact sensitive, and no broad-line rule exists with respect to emancipation.

The Future of Emancipation Law in New Jersey

The recent cases appear to reflect a trend of growing liberalism regarding when a child is emancipated.  As children spend more years in school and the “teenage years” tend to expand well into some children’s twenties, the law appears to becoming more accepting of such delayed emancipation.  Some of the factors that may determine emancipation include the educational and financial situations of the parents, their relationship with the children, and the health of the child in question.

Conclusion

Because emancipation is such a nebulous standard, it is often difficult to determine whether or not a judge will grant an emancipation request.  Generally, the older a child is, the greater odds exist of emancipation.

These cases are very fact-sensitive, and a consultation with a New Jersey family law attorney would help a party requesting or defending against their child’s emancipation.  Once a child is emancipated, neither parent has, absent court order to the contrary, any court-ordered responsibilities to the child.

Your New Jersey Divorce Lawyer:

If you’re considering a New Jersey divorce or Family Law action contact me to discuss your options.  You can schedule an initial consultation by calling my office at 908-237-3096 or by scheduling your own divorce consultation online by clicking here.

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