Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

If My Child Support Covers More Than One Child, What Happens When The Oldest Child Is Emancipated?

The emancipation of one child is a “change of circumstances” which allows a New Jersey Family Court to revisit and change the original child support amount when the amount is for more than one child.  The child support lawyers at our law firm here in New Jersey have helped many clients with a child support amount that covers multiple children without allocating how much money is for each specific child.. In Harrington v. Harrington, the Honorable Judge Jones of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of New Jersey reviewed a case relating to the retroactive emancipation and the modification of a previous court-ordered child support obligation that was unallocated, as the parents had multiple children. Judge Jones held that when a child becomes emancipated and there are multiple other children also covered under an unallocated child support obligation, that same emancipation is valid change of circumstance, that either parent can base a motion for review and modification of the existing unallocated child support order on. 

Michael and Stacy Harrington got divorced on February 15, 2012. They had three unemancipated daughters at the time of divorce. Jessica was a twenty-year-old college student, Ellen was a seventeen-year-old high school student who planned on going to college, and Susan was a fifteen-year-old high school student. According to the terms of their marital settlement agreement, Michael and Stacy agreed to share joint legal custody of the kids with Stacy serving as the parent of primary residence. The agreement further stipulated that Michael would pay Stacy $ 240 a week in in child support. Interestingly, the child support was not allocated or broken down and designated with specified amounts of money for each child separately. The parents also agreed that they would both share in and reasonably contribute towards their children’s college expenses, the specific amount to be determined when the expense would be incurred. 

Michael payed his unallocated child support obligation at the agreed upon amount of $ 240 a week. He never once sought to modify the support obligation based on changed circumstances, nor did either parent seek to enforce the college expense provision. Rather, both parents simply continued to the maintain the status quo. Then in September of 2014, the parents agreed to emancipate the two oldest children, Jessica and Ellen. Only Susan remained unemancipated. She was starting her senior year of high school at that time, and it was not certain whether she was going to college after graduation. Even though two out of three of the daughters were now emancipated, the parents did not talk about any modification to the child support obligation. No motion relating to the modification of the child support obligation based on the changed circumstances of the children’s emancipation would be filed for almost another year and a half. 

Susan graduated high school in June of 2015, and there was still some uncertainty over whether she would be going to college or not. It was certain however that she would continue to live with her mother. In September 2015, Susan decided that she would not be attending college, continued living with her mother, and got a small part-time job. 

On February 11, 2016, Michael filed a motion for a court order retroactively allocating support that was previously unallocated, from $ 240 a week to $ 80 a week per child, as far back as September 10, 2014. As such he wanted his child support obligation to become $ 80 a week. He further requested the court to emancipate Susan and then terminate the final $ 80 a week allocated to her, retroactively to July 1, 2015 when she graduated high school. Stacy agreed to Susan’s emancipation and the termination of her child support award, but she objected to the retroactive modification of the child support obligation to $ 80 to September 10, 2014. She argued that Michael was not entitled to a retroactive modification of his support obligation because he did not make a timely motion to do so when the two eldest daughters were emancipated. 

Judge Jones held that when divorced or separated parents have multiple children all covered under the same unallocated child support award, and one or more of those children become emancipated, that emancipation is valid change of circumstance, that either parent could use to request a review and modification of the current unallocated child support obligation. In such a circumstance where one parent requests a retroactive modification of an unallocated child support obligation that was originally for multiple children, but one or more of the children are now emancipated, the Family Part judge has discretion to decide whether or not to retroactively modify the child support obligation back to the date the child was first emancipated. Still, this discretion is predicated on certain equitable factors. 

When it is all said and done, facts decide cases, not principles of law. The Family Part courts are courts of equity, and so any decision has to be based more so on an analysis of the facts, rather than a monotonous implementation of abstract principles. Depending on the specific situation, the fair and equitable modification of the rights of parties can vary from case to case. Legal principles should not be applied abstractly, but in consideration of the of the specific facts of an individual case. 

In a situation with unallocated child support, numerous unemancipated child, and a long gap in time from the date of the alleged emancipation, and the motion for retroactive modification of unallocated child support by a non-custodial parent, the remedy must be tailored to the specific facts of the case. Consideration must be given to several equitable considerations and factors, including but not limited to: (1) the amount of time that has passed between the day the child was emancipated and the date the motion for retroactive adjustment of the unallocated child support obligation for the remaining unemancipated child was filed by the non-custodial parent; (2) the specific reasons why the supporting parent waited to file a motion to modify support because of an emancipation; (3) if that same parent still payed the same amount of child support to the parent of primary residence, by acquiescence or agreement, and of his or her own free will; (4) if the parent of primary residence committed misrepresentation or fraud that caused the non-custodial parent to delay filing any motion for emancipation or modification of support; (5) if the custodial parent failed to inform the non-custodial parent of facts that would have led to emancipation of the child and modification of the support obligation at an earlier date, could the non-custodial parent have acquired the same information through a reasonable degree of parental inquiry and diligence; (6) if a proposed retroactive modification of the unallocated child support obligation over a long period of time be unreasonably complicated and cumbersome to a point where the reliability and accuracy of the process and result is called into question; (7) if the non-custodial parent is merely seeking a credit for unpaid arrears, or the actual return of support already paid to and spent by the custodial parent; and (8) if the non-custodial parent does seek the return of previously paid money, what is the estimated dollar amount that the non-custodial parent wants back from the custodial parent, and would that same amount cause the likelihood of unequal financial hardship to the parent of primary residence, who was previously receiving that money in good faith. As such, Judge Jones held that the emancipation of the eldest children constituted a change of circumstance that warranted a review and modification of the unallocated child support obligation depending on the equities of the case to be decided in a new plenary hearing.

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