It was not too long ago that the buzz in New Jersey was about Rachel Canning, the high school student who sued her parents for child support and tuition for her private schooling. Since that controversial story made headlines, the topic of emancipation for family law attorneys has become red-hot. Within days after the story was released, the lawyers at my law firm had an increased amount of clients coming to my office questioning their own situations with their children, child support, and emancipation. In particular, many of my law firm’s clients want to know if they would be responsible to financially support their child who had voluntarily moved out. The case of Llewelyn v. Schewchuk, decided April 13, 2015, just addressed that issue. Let’s explore.
In the case, the parties were married in August 1994 and divorced in 2002. One child was born of the marriage. However, the wife also had a child from a previous marriage, born in 1992, that the new husband legally adopted, which makes him legally responsible to financially support the child as opposed to her biological father. When the parties divorced, they agreed to share joint legal custody of the two children with the mother designated as the primary residential parent. Furthermore, the father agreed to pay child support and contribute to his children’s future college expenses.
In April 2013, the father filed a motion seeking to have his older daughter emancipated. He certified that she had voluntarily moved out of her mother’s home and moved in with her biological father on January 1, 2013. Additionally, the daughter was not enrolled in college. Instead, she began working.
As a response, the daughter conceded that she left her mother’s home in December 2012 to live to with her biological dad. She claimed that she was enrolled as a full-time student at a community college, beginning in the summer of 2011 and that she planned to continue her education in the medical field. She provided a copy of her transcript as proof of her enrollment. However, the daughter also stated that she was working part-time at a doughnut shop, earning $7.75 an hour. Based on the facts she presented, the daughter asserted that she was not emancipated, nor could she support herself or live on her own. She also told the court that her biological dad and his wife had been supporting her.
Moreover, the daughter filed an additional certification to oppose her father’s motion. She confirmed that she was registered for the fall 2013 semester and that her natural father’s wife had paid the tuition. She also stated that her biological dad’s new wife paid $441.10 for her books. Lastly, the daughter told the court that she had been seeing her doctor for depression and anxiety. She attached a copy of a clinical visit summary, which listed the symptoms that the doctor addressed during the examination and any medication that was prescribed. The doctor affirmatively noted that the daughter suffered from an anxiety disorder with “mixed anxiety and depression related to her family situation.”
Nonetheless, the court declared the daughter emancipated on August 23, 2013. The court held that she had voluntarily left her mother’s home and was being supported by other people. Furthermore, the court held that the daughter had chosen to move “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by her parents” and that she was therefore deemed independent. The daughter appealed.
The Appellate Division began its analysis by recognizing a child’s right to pursue support from his or her parents. Citing the case of Colca v. Anson, the court stated that “a parent is obliged to contribute to the basic support needs of an unemancipated child to the extent of the parent’s financial ability.” Continuing with that point, the court further recognized the importance of a child attending college and the duty placed on parents to continue providing financial support.
The Appellate Division then discussed how to determine if a child is emancipated or not. It stated that “the essential inquiry is whether the child has moved beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtained an independent status of his or her own.” Furthermore, the court stated that if there were a contested issue of material fact a plenary hearing would be ordered to resolve the issue.
Looking to the facts presented, the Appellate Division believed that the trial court correctly declared the daughter emancipated. It was not disputed that she voluntarily moved out of her mother’s home and into her biological father’s home. Additionally, it was not disputed that the daughter was receiving financial support from “other people” who were not legally obligated to do so. Moreover, the Appellate Division held that although the daughter provided information about her treatment for depression and anxiety, there was no evidence that her mental issues interfered with her ability to be on her own.
Accordingly, the Appellate Division affirmed the findings of the lower court. Since the daughter withdrew from her parents’ supervision and control, found a part-time job, occasionally attended school, and arranged for her biological father and his new wife to support her, she had emancipated herself. To discuss any New Jersey child support questions that you may have, please contact my office today.