A consent order must be submitted or motion made to the court
In New Jersey, unlike many other states, there is no automatic emancipation at the age of 18. Instead for parents to be released of their child support obligations, a court order must be entered. This can be achieved by submission of a consent order to the court or the bringing of a post-judgment motion. A motion for emancipation can be a legal minefield.
Emancipation is a fact sensitive determination by the court
Emancipation is a fact sensitive determination by the court. The standard the court applies is "[w]hen 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." Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 598 (Ch. Div. 1995). The following are some but not all of the key concepts:
Reaching the age of 18 does not result in automatic emancipation
There is no specific age at which emancipation automatically occurs in New Jersey. Although 18 is the age of majority in New Jersey, reaching this age only provides prima facie evidence of emancipation, but is not determinative i.e. if there are reasons why a child should not be emancipated e.g. attending high school, college, then a court will not emancipate them and the parental support obligation will continue.
While parents are generally not required to support a child over eighteen, his or her enrollment in a full-time educational program has been held to require continued support. It is beyond the scope of this short guide to discuss the impact of part-time education, part-time employment, semesters off and gap years on whether a child should be considered emancipated. These situations are where emancipation becomes a fact sensitive issue and an attorney should be consulted.
Becoming pregnant or having a child is not automatic emancipation
Having a baby does not lead to automatic emancipation where the unemancipated child is still relying on parental support. A teenage, unmarried mother still living at home is unlikely to be declared emancipated. Again, each case is very fact sensitive.
Disability may require on-going support
Parents of a child who is unable to care for him or herself may have the support duty extended beyond the age of majority. Again the issue becomes whether the child has become independent or is able to become independent.
Marriage, entering the military or independent existence is emancipation
Children are emancipated and parents no longer have an obligation to support them if they become economically independent through employment, entry into military service, or marriage, and may be constructively emancipated if they, without cause, withdraw from parental control and supervision. Even if you think the principle is straightforward, grey areas frequently come up e.g. is entry to a military college such as West Point entry into the military or post-secondary education that requires an ongoing duty of support? The court in Bishop v. Bishop held that going to West Point constituted active duty in the United States Army and was therefore an emancipating event.
A child is emancipated in New Jersey when declared independent by the court. Many motions to emancipate are not black and white, but require the court to apply the case law to unique facts and view the totality of the circumstances. Even if a child is declared emancipated, the court has the equitable power to subsequently unemancipate. This area can be a legal minefield, so competent advice and representation should be considered.