In a recent unpublished decision, the Appellate Division addressed the issue of emancipation and how that relates, in part, to college expenses. In Lichter v. Lichter, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1532 (App. Div. 2017), the Court reviewed a limited record from the trial court to address these issues.
The parties entered into a Property Settlement and Support Agreement when they divorced in 1993 which covered the entirety of the parties’ relationship as it pertains to the children. The parties have two children, a daughter and a younger son, and Mom would be the parent of primary residence. Dad paid child support for many years, originally approximately $1,200 per month and in 2007 it was reduced to $150 per week.
The Appellate Division heard the case after Dad filed for emancipation of the daughter, age 23, in 2015 after she graduated from undergraduate university. Mom opposed same stating that the parties agreed, in the Property Settlement Agreement, that college would abide the event and that the daughter would be attending Monmouth University for graduate school full time and therefore Dad should continue paying for child support and graduate school expenses. The trial court emancipated the daughter and terminated child support as to her. The trial court further found it “unclear whether the daughter was ‘beyond the sphere of parental influence’ but because she is over 18, there is a rebuttable presumption of emancipation at 18 which [Mom] had not overcome.” After a motion for reconsideration was denied as well, Mom appealed.
After reviewing the limited record from the trial Court, the Appellate Division discussed the ‘sphere of influence.’ Previous case law in New Jersey has stated that there should be a fact-sensitive inquiry as to ‘whether the child has moved beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own.’ As the trial court’s factual findings are binding on appeal when ‘support by adequate, substantial and credible evidence,’ the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Mom did not provide evidence that the daughter was living with her and did not demonstrate how the daughter was not ‘beyond the sphere of parental influence.’
Notwithstanding the above case, it is further important to note that in 2015, the New Jersey Legislature modified the Termination of Child Support statute, 2A:17-56.67, which would have rendered the above case moot. The new statute, in part, states that child support shall terminate by operation of law without order by the court when a child reaches 19 years old unless certain conditions occur (i.e. is still in high school or college full time), but shall not exceed beyond the child’s 23rd birthday, absent exceptional circumstances.