In New Jersey, May I Be Required To Pay Child Support For A Disabled Child Beyond The Age Of 23?
Yes. In a recent case reviewed by the attorneys at our law firm, a parent of a child with cerebral palsy and other disabilities was ordered by a judge of the Family Part, Superior Court of New Jersey that the child was not emancipated, even though they had reached 23 years of age. This is because the judge determined that the child support is required to be paid as it is clear that the child will never be able to care for themselves even as they enter adulthood. The lawyers at our law firm applaud all New Jersey Family Court decisions in which the child’s welfare is placed first and foremost.
In S.E. v. B.S.B., the court considered the continuation of child support payments in a case concerning an adult who was unemancipated as a result of a disability. S.E. and B.S.B. are the parents of D.E., who was born in November of 1993. D.E. was born with cerebral palsy and later diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The Mother raised D.E. as the Father had no relationship with his son and was unaware of his physical limitations until 2015. At the time, D.E. had graduated high school and was taking classes at the local community college and had applied unsuccessfully for numerous jobs.
In May of 2017, the Mother received notice that the Father’s child support obligation of $295 per week as well as one-half of D.E.’s medical expenses would soon terminate. The Mother then filed a motion seeking to continue the child support payments. At the hearing for her motion to continue the child support, the Mother testified to D.E.’s medical condition, explaining that he had considerable physical impairments and limitations but that he was “mostly capable of doing things.” She explained that he was earning credits at community college toward an associate degree, but had been unable to find a job. She also testified that he had access to services such as transportation through social service agencies and that she received Social Security disability benefits for D.E. of $325 per month. The Mother also provided medical reports from the last three years regarding D.E.’s conditions and an Individualized Service Plan from a social service provider.
The Father’s testimony during the hearing was extremely limited. Because he had essentially no contact with his son, he was largely unaware of his medical conditions or the care and expenses that accompanied it. The trial judge found “certain parts of [the Mother’s] testimony” credible, but stated that other portions were not credible due to inconsistencies in her accounts of her son’s medical conditions. The judge stated that her testimony concerning her son’s ability to work and his capability of caring for himself was credible. However, the court noted that the Mother did not provide current medical evidence that would “substantiate the child’s continuing need or disability of a severe nature.” After reviewing the medical records provided by the Mother, the judge found that there was not sufficient evidence to support the Mother’s contention that the child’s cerebral palsy “is to a severity required for a parent to necessarily provide financial support beyond the age of twenty-three.” The court, therefore, denied the Mother’s motion to continue child support.
On appeal, the Mother argued that the court was incorrect in denying her motion because “when a child is unemancipated as a result of a disability, a parent is obligated to continue financial maintenance.” She stated that D.E. is unable to support himself, and therefore continues to require financial support from his parents. The Father, in response, argued that the judge was correct in exercising his discretion in denying the motion to continue support and emancipating D.E. The Father alleged that the Mother did not meet her burden in sufficiently demonstrating that D.E. “remained financially dependent and in need of continuing financial support because of his disability.”
N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67 states that child support obligations terminate when a child reaches the age of twenty-three, “unless upon application of a parent or child the court converts a child support obligation to another form of financial maintenance…” The court will consider this form of support only in exceptional circumstances, including a severe mental or physical disability. This statute directs that a parent does not have a continuing obligation to support an adult child beyond the age of twenty-three unless the parent applying for the continuation overcomes this presumption and proves that the child has a continuing need for support.
Generally, if a child suffers from a disability but is self-sufficient, he will still be considered emancipated and the parent will not have a legal obligation to support him beyond the age of twenty-three. The parent seeking to have the child support continued therefore must prove that the child has a severe and continuing mental or physical incapacity causing his financial dependence. Here, the trial court relied on the reports from D.E.’s treating doctor stating that he attended physical therapy and karate classes on a weekly basis without pain. The Mother had stated in her testimony that D.E. was unable to perform certain tasks of daily living, such as tying his shoes. However, the Individualized Service Plan offered to the judge stated that D.E. “is independent with most activities of daily living, knows how to complete chores around the house, can prepare his own meals with supervision, and has earned a black belt in karate.”
Although the record is clear in showing that D.E. suffers from medical disabilities, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s denial of the Mother’s motion because she did not meet her burden of rebutting the presumption, as a matter of law, that the child is emancipated upon reaching the age of twenty-three. She did not provide sufficient credible evidence that the child is not self-sufficient. Because the presumption is that child support terminates when a child reaches twenty-three, even if the child is disabled, the court will not grant continuing financial support if the parent cannot prove that the child is incapable of caring for himself. Here, the Mother was not able to provide sufficient evidence that her son was not self-sufficient.
If you or a loved one is facing a child support related issue, your inquiry is invited.