Emancipation of a Child in New Jersey

This article explains 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 emancipated because they are self-supporting and independent of parental control. This may occur, for example, when a minor moves out of the family home, works full-time, or gets married.

It’s important to know that turning 18 does not 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 that pays child support (paying parent) wants to stop making support payments for a child he or she 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 is not so. There’s no set age that will trigger automatic emancipation in New Jersey.

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. For example, a court may not emancipate a child over the age of 18 if he or she is in still in college and relies on parental support, or if there is proof of a pre-existing 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 the child has achieved an independent status on his or her own and moved beyond the influence and responsibility of his or her parent.

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 consider 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 parties’ 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. A child support obligation doesn’t automatically end when a child reaches age 18 unless your child support agreement and/or the child support order setting the obligation contain(s) a specific provision that says child support ends at age 18.  

Without such a provision, termination will be determined by New Jersey law. In New Jersey, courts may and often do, order the payment of support and expenses for a child attending college. The mere fact that such a child is at the age of majority (over 18) will not prevent a court from ordering that the parent(s) must continue to support the child.

If you’re paying child support for a child who has turned 18, check the court order setting support to see if it contains a provision to terminate support once your child turns 18. If it doesn’t contain this language, you’ll need to ask your child’s other parent if he or she will agree that your child is now emancipated and no longer requires support. If the other parent won’t agree, you’ll have to head to court and ask a judge to emancipate your child and terminate your support obligation.

If the court finds that the child is emancipated, future support payments will end, but this does not automatically excuse the payment of 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.

Should my Marital Settlement Agreement Contain Specific Terms Regarding Emancipation?

Since emancipation is fact-sensitive, it is essential that your martial settlement agreement (referred to as a “property settlement agreement” in New Jersey) has a provision dealing with the termination of child support. This could include a definition of “emancipation” so there is no question of when child support obligations end. A settlement agreement traditionally lists the following as emancipation events:

  • reaching the age of 18 years or the completion of post-secondary education (college), whichever occurs last
  • the child’s death, marriage or entry into the armed forces
  • the child’s permanent residence away from the parents’ residence (except that boarding school, camp, or college shouldn’t count as a residence away from the parents), and
  • full-time employment after reaching the age of 18 (but not including full-time employment during vacation or summer periods, while attending high school, college, or other post-secondary education on a full-time basis).

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