Emancipation of a Child in New Jersey

Learn about emancipation and how it affects child support obligations in New Jersey.

What Is Emancipation in New Jersey?

Emancipation is the legal act by which a child is released from both the control and support of a parent. Practically speaking, this means that the parent can no longer make decisions for the child, and the child is no longer entitled to financial support from the parent.

An emancipated minor is a child, under 18 years of age, who has become self-supporting and independent of parental control. This may occur, for example, when a minor moves out of the family home, works full-time, is in the military, or gets married (including entering into a legal civil union).

It’s important to know that turning 18 doesn’t automatically trigger emancipation. In some cases, even children who have turned 18 continue to be dependent on their parents. This is discussed in more detail below.

How Does the Issue of Emancipation Usually Come Up?

Oftentimes, emancipation comes up when a parent who pays child support (paying parent) wants to stop making support payments for a child that parent believes has become independent and no longer requires financial support.

If the child’s other parent doesn’t agree that the child is independent or that support should end, the paying parent will need to go to court and file a motion (legal paperwork) asking a judge to emancipate the child and terminate support.

Are Children Automatically Emancipated When They Turn 18?

No. Many people assume that turning 18 results in automatic emancipation. This isn’t so. There’s no set age that will trigger automatic emancipation in New Jersey (other than when it comes to paying child support, which will be addressed later in this article).

Reaching the age of 18 provides the court with prima facie (Latin for “at first sight”) or presumptive proof of emancipation; but this presumption can be defeated with evidence that the 18-year-old child has not yet reached a truly independent status. An example might be when there’s proof of a preexisting disability that prevents a child over the age of 18 from gaining complete independence.

How Does a Court Determine Emancipation?

When faced with a request for emancipation, New Jersey courts must examine all of the facts and circumstances of each particular case to determine whether children have achieved an independent status on their own and moved beyond the influence and responsibility of their parents.

Although age plays an important role in determining whether a child has reached emancipation, it’s not the only factor a court will consider. Other factors courts will look at when determining whether a child has obtained an independent status include:

  • the child’s needs
  • the child’s interests
  • the child’s independent resources
  • the family’s reasonable expectations
  • the parents’ financial abilities, and
  • any other factor the court believes is relevant to the decision.

Do Child Support Payments Automatically End When the Supported Child Reaches the Age of 18?

Not in New Jersey. In 2017, the New Jersey legislature adopted laws meant to clarify the circumstances under which a child support obligation ends.

Under the current law, unless a court order or judgment provides differently, the obligation to pay child support ends automatically (without the need to go to court for an order) on the date that a child marries, dies, or enters the military service. In addition, the child support obligation ends automatically when a child reaches the age of 19, unless one of the following applies:

  • A court order specifies another age for the termination of the obligation to pay child support, provided that age doesn’t extend beyond the date the child turns 23.
  • A custodial parent submits a written request seeking the continuation of child support, prior to the child reaching the age of 19.
  • The child receiving support is in an out-of-home placement through the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families.

Regarding the written request referenced in the second bullet point above, the law sets out the acceptable circumstances for making the request, which would be either:

  • the child is still enrolled in high school or other secondary educational program
  • the child is a student in a post-secondary education program (such as college or trade school) and is enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time attendance during some part of each of any five calendar months of the year, or
  • the child has a physical or mental disability, as determined by a federal or state government agency, that existed prior to the child reaching the age of 19 and requires continued child support.

A custodial parent may also make application for continued support past the age of 19 for exceptional circumstances. In each such application, it would be up to the court to decide what constitutes exceptional circumstances.

If a child is seeking support past the age of 23, a court can order it if it believes it’s warranted under the law. But that support would have to be payable and enforceable as something other than child support. Therefore, child support—in and of itself—can’t extend past the date someone reaches 23 years old.

Once a child is legally emancipated, future support payments will end. But be aware that this doesn’t automatically negate the obligation to pay any child support arrears (unpaid child support payments that have accrued over time). See Child Support in Arrears after Divorce for more information on child support arrears in New Jersey.

For a general discussion of New Jersey child support, see the article Child Support in New Jersey.

Should my Marital Settlement Agreement Address Emancipation?

Because one of the exceptions to the automatic termination of child support at 19 is the inclusion of a different age in a court order, if you and the child’s other parent agree to a different age be sure to insert that in your martial settlement agreement (referred to as a “property settlement agreement” or “separation agreement” in New Jersey).

When you get divorced, the settlement agreement is typically included as part of the judgment of divorce. The divorce judgment is a valid and binding court order. Just make sure the child support termination language contained in the agreement is in full compliance with the current New Jersey law.

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