Emancipation for child support purposes in New Jersey is the conclusion of the dependent relationship between a parent and child. A parent is legally obligated to provide support for his or her child until that child reaches the age of eighteen. While couples cannot legally agree to set the age of emancipation to anything lower than eighteen, they can voluntarily agree to a settlement agreement setting the emancipation age beyond that of eighteen years. As child support lawyers, my law firm understands that this type of agreement is enforceable by family courts here in New Jersey as long as it is deemed to be fair and just. To be considered fair and just the terms of the child support obligation must be plain and explicit, set forth in clear and unambiguous language with no possible room for interpretation. This is why it is essential to hire a lawyer who specializes in family and divorce law so you may be assured that your Divorce Agreement is crystal clear in case any problems arise with your “ex” in the future. The Dolce case provides a great illustration.
Barbara and Vincent Dolce divorced on October 18, 2001. Their son Vincent, Jr. was born on July 17, 1986. The couple had agreed to a property settlement agreement prior to their marriage. This PSA was eventually incorporated into their final judgment of divorce. The parties agreed that Barbara would have primary custody of their son, and Vincent, Sr. would contribute $200 in child support weekly until Vincent, Jr.’s emancipation.
According to the parent’s terms, their son’s emancipation would occur at the earliest of four events. These events were: either his reaching twenty-three years old or completing four years of college; marriage; death; or voluntary or involuntary entry into the Armed Forces of the United States. Even though Barbara and Vincent entered into the property settlement agreement without counsel, they both described the PSA as “fair, adequate and satisfactory.”
While the terms of the emancipation provision of the PSA were clear, Vincent, Sr. nevertheless tried to have his son declared emancipated immediately after Vincent, Jr. turned eighteen on July 17, 2004. Vincent, Jr. had already withdrawn from high school at the age of fifteen. Even though he was home schooled for some time, Vincent, Jr. had yet to successfully obtain his GED.
Vincent, Sr.’s reasoning for why his son should be legally emancipated rested on the fact that Vincent, Jr. had turned eighteen and reached the age of maturity. Despite the fact that Vincent Sr. had failed to allege or demonstrate that his son was financially able to take care of himself or had otherwise met the any of the emancipation requirements set forth in the PSA, or even that circumstances had changed, the Family Part judge still granted the emancipation. Vincent Jr. was declared emancipated on September 4, 2004, the very same date his father filed the motion in court. While the judge did note that Vincent, Jr. suffered from educational problems, he still found him emancipated by operation of law. The judge stated that the law says you are emancipated when you enter the service, marriage, or finish high school at the age of eighteen, and thus Vincent Jr. must be declared emancipated.
Barbara appealed the Family Part’s decision. The New Jersey Appellate Division disagreed with the motion judge, stating that emancipation is not a self-executing principle. According to the Appellate Division, an emancipation does not occur automatically or by operation of law merely because the dependent child has reached the age of eighteen. Actually, emancipation does not occur at any age in particular. Interestingly, reaching the age of eighteen creates only a “prima facie” rather than a “conclusive” proof of emancipation.
“Prima facie” is a Latin term that literally means “on its face.” It means a fact presumed to be true unless it is disproved. Prima facie proof is based on first impression, and accepted as correct until proved otherwise. For most civil actions, the person who brings forth the claim must present a prima facie case to avoid dismissal. The same person must produce enough evidence on all elements of the claim to support the claim and shift the burden of evidence production to the other party. If this person fails to make a prima facie case, the opposing side may move for dismissal or a request a favorable verdict without presenting any evidence to rebut whatever evidence the plaintiff has presented. This is because the burden of persuading a judge or jury always rests with the plaintiff.
On the other hand, “conclusive” proof is evidence that may not be disputed and must be accepted by a court as a definitive proof of fact. Conclusive proof or evidence puts an end to doubt, question, or uncertainty. It is decisive.
A fact sensitive inquiry is required to conclusively determine whether a child is emancipated, and no longer has any right to parental support. The essential question is whether the child had passed “beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own.” In other words, the question that needs to be answered is if the child is independent and responsible enough to make his or her own decisions and take care of his or herself. To answer this question consideration must be given to the circumstances of the child, including but not limited to his or her needs, interests, independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability.
One of the most significant factors in Dolce was the fact that Vincent, Jr.’s parents voluntarily agreed to set his emancipation age to twenty-three. A voluntary and consensual agreement can bind parents to support a child beyond the age of eighteen. Of course any such agreement would only be enforceable if fair and equitable. The court remains free to alter a parental settlement agreement if circumstances change in a way that the provision would not be equitable and fair.
When parents voluntarily agree to set an emancipation age that is beyond the minimum requirement of eighteen years, courts strongly adhere to the public policy favoring the stability of consensual agreements. Because matrimonial settlement agreements are fundamentally consensual and voluntary in nature, they are considered valid and enforceable as long they are fair and just. Courts favor these types of agreements as they are a relatively peaceful means of terminating marital strife. Rather than being governed by contract law, these terms are valid if found to be fair and just.
Vincent, Sr. failed to demonstrate that the PSA was unfair or unjust. Furthermore, neither law nor public policy limits parents from voluntarily agreeing to extend support to their child beyond the required age of eighteen. According to the Appellate Division, no reason, evidence, or proof had been presented that could demonstrate why Vincent, Sr. should be released from the emancipation provision in an agreement he voluntarily and knowingly agreed to. The court found the terms of Vincent, Sr.’s child support obligation plain and explicit. Similarly, the court found the emancipation events to be set forth in clear and unambiguous language, with no possible room for interpretation. Moreover, both parents described the PSA as “fair, adequate and satisfactory.” More than likely, the parents actually anticipated the reason why Vincent Jr. would need support after reaching the age of eighteen . . . his educational problem and the economic need and dependency that would inevitably stem from it.
The New Jersey Appellate Division found no injustice or unfairness in enforcing the clear terms of the parents’ agreement. Accordingly, the order emancipating Vincent, Jr. and terminating his father’s child support obligation was set aside, and the trial court was bordered to rehear the motion and return a verdict consistent with the Appellate Division’s opinion.
If you or a loved one has any issue regarding child support, please never hesitate to contact my office to learn about how we may help you.