In two words, probably not. As a New Jersey divorce and child support lawyer, I know that it is not quite as simple as that. A parent must conclusively prove that their child is independent and responsible enough to make his or her own decisions and take care of his or herself before a New Jersey Family Court judge will order an emancipation. I should also mention how important it is to hire an attorney who only handles family law and divorce related matters. Child support reductions require an accurate documentation of both parent’s finances, but only an expert New Jersey child support law knows how to present the case in a favorable manner for their client. A brand new case Thomas v. Thomas, explores the level of evidence required in emancipation and child support proceedings.
Nancy Thomas gave birth to her son in 1995. He graduated from high school in May 2014. At that time, his father Edwin Thomas, was required by court order, to pay $ 159 in child support. By the time of graduation, Edwin had not seen his son in two years and was not consulted as to his son’s college selection.
The University of North Georgia accepted the son as a cadet and awarded him the Georgia Military Scholarship. The scholarship payed for room, meals, tuition, fees, uniforms, and provided a $1,000 per year textbook allowance. The scholarship required the son to enlist in the Georgia Army National Guard, which would pay him an income while attending school. He would also be required to serve at least four years in the National Guard after graduating. While the scholarship did not cover approximately $ 750 of one-time University fees, $ 250 of that fee would be reimbursed upon graduation. The factual record did not specify any other expenses, or the income the son would receive during the school year.
On July 3, 2014, Edwin filed an application to emancipate his son which was denied by his hearing officer. Emancipation 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 at least until that child reaches the age of eighteen. Subsequently, Edwin filed a motion seeking emancipation of his son on August 6, 2014. Though the court denied the motion, it reduced Edwin’s child support payment from $ 159 to $ 100 per week.
Edwin appealed the order. He argued that his motion for emancipation should have been granted because his son had accepted the Georgia Military Scholarship and enlisted in the National Guard. Alternatively, Edwin argued that the court made a mistake in only reducing his child support to $100.
The Appellate Division decided to review the case de novo. De novo review is a form of appeal in which the appeals court holds a trial as if no prior trial had been held. A trial de novo is common on appeals from small claims court judgments. The legal concept of emancipation is correctly executed when the central dependent relationship between the parent and the child ends. Emancipation is not automatic and does not necessarily have to occur at any particular age. Moreover, reaching the age of eighteen merely establishes a “prima facie” proof of emancipation rather than a “conclusive” proof.
Prima facie is a Latin term that literally means “on its face.” It means a fact is 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.
Emancipation requires a fact sensitive inquiry to conclusively determine whether a child no longer has any right to parental support. The essential inquiry is whether the child has 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.
The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed the evidence on record and concluded that the motion judge correctly determined that Edwin’s child was not emancipated. His son’s acceptance of the Georgia Military Scholarship and enlistment in the National Guard was not equivalent to a full-time military commitment. Generally, a person on active duty with the military and enrolled in a service academy is emancipated from his parents for purposes of child support and college expenses. The Appellate Division however, found enlistment in the National Guard distinguishable from full-time active duty. Edwin’s son had only recently graduated from high school at the time the motion was heard. He was only just beginning his college education, and the court concluded that his parents were still influential in his life. Furthermore, he had not yet become responsible and independent.
The Appellate Division also made special note of the trial courts substantial discretion in emancipation and child support matters. As long as a trial court remained consistent with the law, any reward it ordered would not be changed unless it is clearly unreasonable, arbitrary, or obviously contrary to evidence. However, child support obligation may be changed if the party can show changed circumstance. Do to so, a motion for modification needs to have a copy of the prior case information statement attached to it in addition to a current case information statement. A case information statement is a document which is filed with a court clerk at the commencement of a civil lawsuit in many of the court systems of the United States. It is generally filed along with the complaint. The purpose of a case information statement is to let the judge and court clerk know what type of case is being brought by the parties, so that they can better prepare for the case to come to trial. If the party seeking a change in child support established a prima facie proof of a substantial change in circumstance, the court will order the other party to file a current case information statement as well. Any order of child support requires both parents to provide their complete financial information. This is to provide the judge with a complete picture of the parties’ finances.
The Appellate Division rejected Edwin’s argument that he should no longer have to pay any child support. While the Georgia Military Scholarship effectually releases Edwin from his responsibility to contribute to his son’s college education, it does not mean he no longer has to support his dependent son during college. The Appellate Division went on to explain that while the motion judge correctly refused to reduce Edwin’s child support payment to zero, the judge should have then required the submission of case information statements before reducing the child support obligation to $ 100 per week. Without the statements, the court could not have had both parties full financial picture, nor could it have any basis for concluding that Edwin’s child support obligation should be reduced. The Appellate Division set aside the order and sent it back to the motion judge to reconsider Edwin’s child support commitment. The motion judge was ordered to allow both parties to present their updated financial information regarding their incomes and expenses as well as the income and expenses of their son.
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