Divorce Myth #5* – I do not have to pay child support after their eighteenth birthday.
To be clear, in New Jersey there is no specific age where child support simply terminates automatically. Instead, the law provides for a rebuttable presumption of emancipation upon reaching age 18. However, the New Jersey Courts view emancipation as a question of needs and not merely of age. It is a fact sensitive inquiry rather than a straight forward test. Generally speaking, the Court will deem a child to be emancipated when they "move beyond the sphere of influence" and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status on his or her own.
So, what constitutes emancipation under this "sphere of influence" analysis? Courts have typically viewed a child’s marriage or entry into the Armed Services as clear emancipation events. In addition, there is a very favorable prospect of success on an effort to emancipate a child who has graduated from college, secondary, and/or trade school.
But, there are three specific scenarios where the decision to emancipate, or to not emancipate, is not as straightforward. The first scenario pertains to the "undecided child." In other words, what about a child who is not attending school and is not working, or at least not working to the extent necessary to be self sufficient? When have they left the sphere of influence? In these situations the Court will look at the prevailing circumstances including the child’s need, interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability, among other things. The Court would likely also consider what would have likely happened if the family had remained intact. If the child would have likely went to work and become self sufficient, then, by extension, he/she should be emancipated.
The second scenario pertains to the "career college student." Put another way, what about a child who does not follow the "traditional" path of four years, full time college studies? The courts have directed that a child must have a full time status at college. Some courts also emphasis that there is a duty to provide proof that the child is attending school and making an effort. What about taking breaks? While a short hiatus may be acceptable, longer breaks in studies are more likely to support a conclusion of emancipation.
The third scenario pertains to a disabled child. More to the point, can emancipation be deferred due to a disability of the child where the child would otherwise be deemed emancipated? In short, it depends on the timing as well as the basis of the disability. Generally, the Courts have held that a child who is disabled due to a pre-existing illness, including mental and emotional disorders as well as physical, is not emancipated until and if he or she is relieved of the disability. However, a voluntary addiction to illegal drugs does not constitute a legally accepted handicap which would defer emancipation.
The point is that one should not circle a child’s 18th birthday on a calendar as a guaranteed emancipation event. Depending upon the facts and circumstances of your particular case, one could be paying child support for many years beyond the 18th birthday.
*This is the fifth article in a ten part series exploring the most common myths concerning divorce law in New Jersey.
All of the attorneys at Domers & Bonamassa are well versed and have years of experience addressing family law issues, no matter how complicated. Contact us today at (856) 596-2888 for a private consultation. We appear in the following counties: Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, Mercer, Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May. Our practice areas include: divorce, custody, parenting time, child support, alimony, domestic violence, college expenses, equitable distribution, name changes, step parent adoptions, paternity issues, child abuse and neglect, prenuptial agreements, mediation and arbitration.
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