Child Support and Emancipation in New Jersey

Posted in Divorce

New Jersey Courts have held that child support payments, although payable to the custodial parent, actually belong to the child. Accordingly, a custodial parent is not permitted to waive child support from the other party in exchange for some other benefit.

In most instances, child support is calculated by the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, which determines the appropriate amount of child support to be paid based on the number of children, the incomes of the parties, and the amount of parenting time each party has (among other factors). The Child Support Guidelines are presumed to be correct by the Courts, unless the combined net income of the parties exceeds a net income of $187,000 or a child is over the age of eighteen and resides at college. In those instances, the Guidelines do not apply, and the appropriate amount of child support is determined by applying the various factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a).

One of the most common questions asked by clients is "How long will I have to pay child support?" Child support obligations continue until a child becomes emancipated. There is a common misconception that child support obligations automatically end when a child reaches the age of 18. That is not the case.

In New Jersey, there is no set age when a child becomes emancipated. A child is emancipated when they are outside of the “sphere of influence” of their parents. Upon reaching the age of 18, there is a presumption in favor of emancipation. That presumption, however, can be rebutted by showing that the child is enrolled on a full-time basis in college or graduate school, has a disability, or is otherwise not able to care for or provide for themselves.

Although there is no set time a child becomes emancipated, emancipation traditionally occurs at the following events: when the child graduates from post-secondary education or graduate school, when the child enters the military, or upon the child’s marriage. However, it is important to note that parties are free to define their own emancipation events in their Marital Settlement Agreements, which the Court will enforce. For example, if both parties agree to emancipate the child once the child reaches the age of eighteen and the Marital Settlement Agreement incorporates that language, a Court will enforce that agreement in lieu of applying the applicable case law.

Finally, it is up to a party seeking to emancipate the child to file an appropriate motion with the Court seeking a Court Order emancipating the child. Unlike child support, the modification of which is statutorily prohibited, a Court does have the authority to emancipate a child retroactively. While the date of emancipation will terminate child support, any existing arrears at that time will not be vacated.

As always, if you believe your child should be emancipated or if you are contemplating a divorce, it is of the utmost importance that you seek the assistance of an experienced family law attorney to discuss how to best proceed.

Corrine Cooke is a member of Stark & Stark’s Divorce Group in the Lawrenceville, New Jersey office. For questions, please contact Ms. Cooke.