New Jersey Divorce Law and Payment of College Tuition; A True Story.
In New Jersey, when a child turns eighteen, he or she legally becomes an adult. With respect to child support and college contributions, family courts refer to this emancipation. Emancipation means that, as a parent, you are not legally responsible to support your children. However, after the Newburgh v. Arrigo case was decided, the New Jersey courts held that parents are responsible to support their children while attending college. With that said, as a divorce and family attorney here in New Jersey, I am asked frequently if emancipation of a child can be deferred beyond the age of eighteen. The answer is often “yes,” but very specific language must be in the parties property settlement agreement in order to achieve this goal.. An excellent example that dissects this issue of deferring emancipation beyond eighteen years of age may be found in the case of Hadjikonstantinou v. Hadjikonstantinou. Let’s explore.
In Hadjikonstantinou, the parties married in January 1989 and divorced in January 2007. Three children were born of the marriage. The parties executed a property settlement agreement which was incorporated into the dual judgment for divorce. Among other things, the agreement stated that emancipation for the children was to be deferred beyond age eighteen to allow each child the reasonable opportunity to attend college. Additionally, the agreement provided for the possibility of a limited break in schooling, as long as the child diligently resumed a full time course of study.
On March 30, 2013, the father filed a motion to emancipate his son because he had stopped attending college. He alleged that his son graduated from high school in June 2009 and began college in the fall of the same year. However, while his son was a full time student from the date of enrollment, he decided to take a break in his schooling in the Spring of 2012. The mother explained to the father that their son wasn’t enrolled for the Spring 2012 semester because he enrolled in an eighteen-month technical institute where the earliest start date was in October 2012. She further stated that the son fully intended to resume his studies in October 2012, once the program began. Thus the trial judge denied the father’s motion. He appealed.
On appeal, the father stated that his son’s failure to enroll in a college for the Spring 2012 semester triggered his emancipation pursuant to the parties’ property settlement agreement. Particularly, he pointed to the agreement which stated “The parties’ son . . . shall continue to be a full[-]time student taking a minimum of 12 credits per semester. If he does not take 12 credits or withdraw [sic] from a class, child support shall no longer be paid on his behalf.” However, the judge affirmed the findings of the lower court.
The New Jersey Appellate Division held it was clear pursuant to the property settlement agreement that the son was entitled to a break in schooling, as long as he intended to resume his studies. The court found that although the son did take a break in his studies, he intended to resume them in October 2012. Therefore emancipation of the son should be deferred beyond the age of eighteen.
In Hadjikonstantinou, the court specifically looked to the parties’ property settlement agreement. However, if a property settlement agreement had not been executed, the court would probably have looked to whether or not the child had moved “beyond the sphere of his parent’s influence” pursuant to Newburgh. If you believe that you are experiencing a similar situation, please do not hesitate to contact my office today.