Most Property Settlement Agreements entered into between divorcing parties deal with the issue of emancipation of a child, which is the cut off date for a parent’s child support obligation. Intertwined with this issue is college or secondary education and each parent’s responsibility toward this obligation.
In New Jersey, there is no set age for emancipation. Many people seem to think that a child is emancipated when he/she reaches the age of majority which is 18, but in most cases this is not true.
The Superior Court of New Jersey has stated that “When a child moves beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status on his or her own, generally he or she will be deemed emancipated.”
Since the issue of whether a child is emancipated is fact sensitive, it is essential that your Property Settlement Agreement have a definition of emancipation so there is no question when child support obligations stop. Property Settlement Agreements traditionally list the following as emancipation events:
1. Reaching the age of 18 years or the completion of post-secondary education (college), whichever occurs last.
2. Marriage of the child.
3. Permanent residence away from the parent’s residence, except that residence at boarding school, camp or college shall not be deemed a residence away from the parents.
4. Death of the child.
5. Entry of the child into the armed forces.
6. A child obtaining full time employment after attainment of the age of 18 years, except that a child engaging in full time employment during vacation or summer periods while attending high school, college or other post-secondary education on a full time basis, shall not be deemed full time employment.
Issues arise, even with a definition of emancipation such as this, when a child works full time and goes to school full time. In a recent case, a father filed a motion to emancipate his son and terminate his child support obligation. The mother opposed the motion and filed a cross-motion requesting that the father be required to contribute toward their son’s college education expenses. The parties’ Property Settlement Agreement provided that the father pay child support for the minor child until he was emancipated, which was defined by the parties as set forth above. The parties’ Property Settlement Agreement also stated that if the child was a full time matriculated student enrolled in a minimum of 10 credits per semester, the parties would proportionally share the educational costs after financial aid, scholarships and tuition assistance.
In this case, the son worked at an office full time during the day and went to college in the evening taking 12 credits per semester. Although the Property Settlement Agreement did not address full time employment while going to school full time, the Lower Court continued child support and compelled the father to pay toward his son’s college education expenses.
On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with many of the father’s arguments and found that he was entitled to (1) confirmation as to the number of credits his son was taking at college, as well as his future college plans, (2) disclosure and documentation of his son’s income and savings in order to ascertain whether his son contributed toward household expenses or paid his own expenses, (3) the financial status of both parents and (4) whether scholarships or other financial aid was available. The Appellate Division determined that a plenary hearing was necessary in order for the Lower Court to determine the issues of emancipation, child support obligations and each parent’s responsibility toward college expenses. It is clear from this case that even an attempt to define an emancipation event in a Property Settlement Agreement is not always successful and parties to a divorce action should pay particular attention to the wording of any agreement entered into in order to state with specificity the parties’ intent by covering all conceivable bases.
Issues which may come up in post-judgement divorce cases may be (1) the parents’ obligation to pay for graduate school (2) the parents’ obligation to continue child support and college education for a period of more than four years, (3) whether child support continues if a child takes a leave of absence or other break from school before resuming his/her studies and (4) whether child support continues if the child is ill (physically or emotionally), and therefore cannot attend college.
Dealing with these issues at the time a Property Settlement Agreement is entered may save an inordinate amount of time and money in the future.