A very common issue that I routinely see as a practicing New Jersey child support attorney, and one that is always a hot topic for lawyers and the public alike, concerns the issue of child support and when a child may be emancipated.  Most parents on both sides of the spectrum have many questions as to what the law is on this issue, what their rights are and what might happen in their particular situation.  The issue can become even more confusing and troubling if a child has graduated high school, does not attend your typical four (4) year college, but is instead enrolled in a trade school.  Following is a legal analysis of experienced attorney divorce and child support attorney.

In order to understand the dynamics of this issue of child support in New Jersey, it is necessary to know a brief background on emancipation and the termination of one’s child support obligation on that ground.  Obviously, if a child remains unemancipated, the paying parent must continue to provide child support on behalf of the minor child.  The Court thus needs to determine whether the child has become emancipated, but what does that actually mean?

Emancipation traditionally means a person who has become free, set at liberty, or made his own master.  In the context of support obligations, that definition translates into the time when a child is or is suspected to be self supporting.  In other words, it is when a parent should be and is relieved of their duty to support the child.  There is a rebuttable presumption that emancipation occurs when a child turns eighteen (18) years of age.  You should always be mindful though that the issue of when a child becomes emancipated is fact sensitive.  It has, however, been defined as when a child moves beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains independent status on his or her own, which at that point means the child will generally be deemed emancipated.  For more insight on this, please see the case of Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593 (Ch. Div. 1995).

In addition, the need for an education has also traditionally been considered by the courts of New Jersey as a necessity, thus emancipation would not occur until a child’s education has been completed.  See Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).  Furthermore, New Jersey law clearly recognizes the importance of college or other post-secondary education in a child’s life.  Justice Pollack in the Newburgh case recognized trade schools to be a viable post-secondary education option by reasoning that in the past, a college education was reserved for the elite, but stated that “the vital impulse of egalitarianism has inspired the creation of a wide variety of educational institutions that provide post-secondary education for practically everyone.”  The seasoned Judge went on to further reason that state, county, and community colleges, as well as some private colleges and vocational schools, provide educational opportunities at reasonable costs.

One could certainly interpret this to mean that the Court recognized that there were many different ways a child could pursue their post-secondary education and that in this day and age a child and their education was not confined to the traditional notion of a four (4) year college.  The Judge took notice that there were many avenues a child could pursue and that the court should take this into consideration.

By way of example, I once had a case where the parties’ minor daughter, for the purposes of this article we will call her Deanna, was nineteen (19) years of age, and thus beyond that threshold age of eighteen (18) years old.  Her father was paying child support to her mother and it was at that time that dad felt his child support obligation should terminate.  Deanna graduated from high school in June of 2007, she then attended school full time at a local trade school where she was pursuing the special make-up effects program.  At the time dad filed his application, she was registered for and preparing to attend classes at a different and well recognized trade school in New York, as of March 2009.  She was also enrolled in another recognized institute in New York in the esthiology program, which in other words means a program which provides hands on learning designed to prepare an individual with a complete understanding of beauty and wellness, which classes she was scheduled to begin in September of 2009.  Clearly Deanna was intending to and was furthering her education, albeit not at your traditional four (4) year college or with one of your traditional majors.

Furthermore, Deanna continued to reside with her mother on a full-time basis.  At that time, she was not working, full-time or part-time, and thus it was argued that by no  reasonable means could Deanna financially sustain herself and by no means had she moved “beyond the sphere of influence” of her parents, nor had she obtained “an independent status” on her own.  The case was going to turn on whether this particular Judge believed that a post-secondary education is satisfied by attendance at a trade school, which Deanna was clearly attending in this example.

It was further argued that New Jersey case law mandated that a “trade school” is a sufficient post-secondary education in the same vein as college, thus making a minor child unemancipated if they were in fact attending trade school.  This theory was based upon the case law cited above.  Deanna attended school full time at a trade school where she pursued the special make-up effects program and was registered and preparing to attend classes at another such trade school.  Deanna was always interested in becoming a make-up artist in the entertainment industry and thus turned to trade school rather than traditional college. As such, emancipation should not occur until a child’s education has been completed and a trade school (i.e. vocational school) should be recognized as a viable post-secondary education to which all children are entitled.

After much debate, and several months had gone by, fortunately for Deanna, the Court agreed and she was considered to be a full-time student attending a viable post-secondary education and thus was not emancipated at that time.  This can be a particularly troubling issue though that a Court could struggle with depending on the age of the child, the education being pursued, the specific school and the financial circumstances of the parties.  The Judge could have easily ruled that Deanna was emancipated, thus terminating dad’s child support obligation, and I am not sure an appellate court would have reversed such a decision.

In the event you run into such an issue, which is not a rare occurrence with the wide array of schools and different educational means offered in today’s society, you may be able to continue to receive child support for your child while they are attending such a trade school.   Likewise, you may also be able to have your child emancipated if it is determined that this particular school or where the child is attending does not amount to a viable post-secondary education.  As practicing New Jersey family law attorneys we can assess your case and get the appropriate relief for you and your child.

Please do not hesitate to contact our firm today to discuss your rights and how we can help you.