It is axiomatic in family law that parents have a duty to provide for their children. In fact, this is codified into our statutes as N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, which makes clear that both parents are obligated to provide for the, “care, custody, education and maintenance of the children … as is fit, reasonable and just,” and based upon the totality of the circumstances of the particular case. The custody statute, N.J.S.A. 9:2-4, additionally reinforces this shared enterprise of caring for children. It charges both parents equally with the obligations (and rights) of child-rearing. This parental duty to support continues until the child is emancipated. Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).
The question of course, is when is a child emancipated? Unlike other jurisdictions, whose statutes identify a specific age of emancipation, New Jersey law does not fix an age at which emancipation occurs. Youssefi v. Youssefi, 328 N.J. Super. 12, 23 (App. Div. 2000). Critically, however, a presumption of emancipation exists upon a child reaching age 18. This presumption is a rebuttable one. Meaning that the party opposing emancipation of a child age 18 or above can introduce evidence of why the child is not emancipated. In this vein, the courts have noted that age alone is not itself dispositive of emancipation. Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 597 (Ch. Div. 1995).
In its simplest terms, New Jersey courts have held that emancipation of a child is reached when the “fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child is concluded.” Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 308 (App. Div. 1997). The essential inquiry is to determine whether the child has moved “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent,” and whether they have obtained an independent status of his or her own. Id.
Emancipation may occur by reason of the child’s marriage, by court order, or by reaching an appropriate age (i.e the presumption at age 18 or later). There can be no question that the inquiry is always fact-sensitive. In fact, the law specifically intends such a case-by-case analysis so as to accommodate the unlimited variety of family dynamics that exist and present themselves to the courts. Thus, in some instances, such as where a child is of particular special need, be it physical and/or mental, it may be that the child will simply never become sufficiently independent to be deemed emancipated. In these cases, even where the child has reached and surpassed the age of presumed emancipation, child support and other responsibilities of the parents may continue indefinitely.
When a child is deemed emancipated, the parent relinquishes their right to custody and other authority over the child, such as access to report cards. Most important, the parents are legally relieved of their burden of support and the child is no longer entitled to receive support.
Because of the fact-sensitive nature of the emancipation analysis, many divorcing individuals incorporate specific terms into their final agreements which set forth certain emancipation “events.” Once any one of these events occurs, the agreement calls for the automatic emancipation of the subject child. In this way, the need to engage in what can be a less than clear inquiry is bypassed. Parties who are not married but share a child are similarly wise to incorporate such terms into any custody and support agreement they might negotiate with the other parent. Absent such an agreement, it will be left to the judge to determine whether the child is “beyond the sphere of influence” of the parents.