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

In New Jersey, Is A Child Emancipated If They Take A Break From College Due To A Medical Condition?

Divorced parents in New Jersey are required to provide for their children (i.e., child support) until they become legally emancipated. The essential question for lawyers and judges a like understand that, in determining if a child is emancipated 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.” To answer the question as to whether child support should be terminated, consideration must be given to the circumstances of the child (such as a temporary time-out from school, including but not limited to his or her needs, interests, independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability. In the recent case of Myne v. Myne, the a New Jersey Family Court held that enrollment in a full-time educational program may be indicative of continued child support, and merely taking a short break from school does not remove a child beyond the sphere of influence of his or her parent.

Thomas E. Mynes married Mary Mynes in 1987. They had two children together, a son in 1989, and a daughter in 1991. The couple divorced in 2001. A property settlement agreement was incorporated into the final judgement of divorce. According to the property settlement agreement, Thomas would continue his obligation to provide towards support of each child until the child reached the age of eighteen or graduated from high school. If the child choose to pursue a college education, then the question of direct support would be considered in conjunction with the contribution to be made towards the unsubsidized higher education expenses.

In July 2012, Thomas moved pro se for an order that declared both children emancipated. While he requested oral argument, Mary filed no opposition. Pro se means for one's own behalf, or in person. Appearing for oneself, as in the case of one who does not retain a lawyer and appears for himself or herself in court. 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 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. This type of agreement is enforceable by the courts 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.

The Family Part determined that argument was no necessary, and thus the judge entered an order that declared the parties’ son emancipated. In a supplemental order dated August 28, 2013, the judge recalculated Thomas’s support obligations on the behalf of his daughter, R.M., because she denied the request to have her emancipated. Thomas decided it was finally time he retain counsel. After hiring an attorney in July 2014, Thomas filed another motion that sought a declaration that his daughter be declared emancipated as of January 2013, and credit for any overpayment of support against any arrearages. He also requested oral argument if the case the motion was opposed. Thomas claimed that he was estranged from R.M. and was not aware if she was still attending school as of January 2013. He further argued that if R.M. had been a full-time student, she would have received an associate’s degree by 2012, or, had she continued her education further, a bachelor’s degree, no later than May 2014.

Mary opposed the motion and filed a cross-motion. She sought counsel fees, and she too, requested oral argument. Mary certified that R.M. still attended Mercer County Community College, resided at home and was completely dependent upon her for her major living expenses. Mary further explained that in the Spring of 2012, R.M. had been diagnosed with cancer. She underwent successful treatment, but still suffered psychological trauma from the illness. Mary asserted that throughout the entire traumatic period, R.M. continued to attend college, and that Thomas was completely aware of R.M.’s academic and health status.

R.M. herself filed a certification that stated that even though her father knew of her cancer diagnosis, he had still distanced himself from her. At this time she was financially dependent on her mother and her father’s child support. She remained at MCCC throughout 2014, and was considered starting the nursing clinical program in the fall. The judge did not hold oral argument. She issued an order on August 29, 2014 that denied Thomas’s motion without prejudice and also denied both parties requests for counsel fees. The judge reasoned that oral argument was not necessary because there was no evidence beyond the motion papers. The judge also determined that R.M.’s reduced class load constituted a medical hiatus that warranted her remaining unemancipated. Still, the court recognized that R.M. was now twenty-two, and this medical hiatus could not could endure for an open-ended period. R.M.’s anticipated graduation date was May 2016, so the court ordered that R.M. would not be emancipated until that time regardless of graduation. Thomas appealed.

On appeal Thomas argued that the incorrectly denied his request for oral argument, a plenary hearing was necessary to resolve disputes of material fact, and extending his child support obligations until May 2016. In opposition, Mary argued that a plenary hearing was not required because there was no facts in dispute, and R.M. was not emancipated because she had not left the sphere of influence of her parent. The Appellate Division started its opinion by stating that there is no specific age of emancipation. Reaching the age of eighteen is only prima facie proof and not 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. Enrollment in a full-time educational program may be indicative of continued support. Merely, taking a short break from school does not remove a child beyond the sphere of influence of his or her parent.

            The Appellate Division also found that the trial judge did not address the question of whether R.M. had moved beyond the sphere of parental influence. Furthermore, the judge misunderstood Mary’s essential argument that R.M.s education was interrupted by a medical hiatus, when Mary never even made that claim. The New Jersey Appellate Division decided that a plenary hearing was required to address this material issue of fact and remanded the case to be heard again.

            Please contact my office if you have a child support issue here in New Jersey.