Op-Ed: NJ’s Emancipation Statute Brings Changes to Child Support

Robert A. Epstein | April 19, 2016 | Opinion
New child-support regulations should help cut down on administrative backlog while reducing litigation between parents

Robert A. Epstein
In an effort to bring greater certainty to when a parent’s child-support obligation will end, on January 19, 2016, Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a new statute that continues our state’s recent trend of enacting family-law legislation with terms more favorable to the payor than that which existed before. The law, which will take effect on February 1, 2017, applies to all child-support orders issued prior to or after its effective date.

Termination of child support

The statute alters the rebuttable presumption established by our courts that child support terminates when a child reaches age 18 and places a greater burden on the custodial parent receiving support to ensure payments continue. For instance, the new law provides that child support will automatically terminate when a child reaches 19 years of age unless another age for such termination is specified in a court order (with a cap of the date when the child reaches age 23); a written request seeking the continuation of child support is submitted to the court by a custodial parent prior to the child reaching the age of 19; or the child receiving support is in an out-of-home placement through the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families.

In response to a notice of proposed termination of child support, the custodial parent may submit a written request to continue support until a projected future termination date if the child is still enrolled in high school or other secondary program; the child is a student in a post-secondary education program and is enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time attendance during some part of each of any five calendar months of the year; the child has a physical or mental disability as determined by a federal or state agency that existed prior to the child’s reaching the age of 19 and requires continued child support; or there exist some other exceptional circumstances.

Probation notices of child-support termination

Through the issuance of written notices to parents, the new statute, in part, is designed to ease the administrative backlog resulting from countless matters governed by the Probation Division involving children who have never been formally emancipated.

Support while in college

Importantly, the new law provides that a parent is not relieved from paying “support or other costs while a child is enrolled full-time in a post-secondary education program.” Since the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines utilized to calculate support for children who are younger than age 18 (or more than age 18 but still attending high school and living at home) do not apply once a child commences college, parties may often, as a result, still end up in litigation arguing over how much child support should be until the child’s emancipation.

Moreover, since the new law focuses solely on when child support will terminate, it also does not address those situations involving a child in dispute with her divorced parents over who should pay for college expenses, such as the very public battle between Caitlyn Ricci and her parents over who should pay for her out-of-state college tuition.

While New Jersey courts provide that “financially capable parents” are generally required to contribute to a child’s college or post-secondary educational costs, the skyrocketing costs of both public and private universities create a conundrum that can cause great financial strain upon a family, if not worse. New Jersey courts have only begun to recently touch upon this conflict and perhaps legislative action will follow should we witness an increasing number of Ricci-type disputes in the future.

Notwithstanding, New Jersey’s emancipation law will have a substantial impact on matrimonial practice in its more payor-friendly approach. Parents paying and receiving support should be sure to learn about how the law will apply to their specific situation, as it is imperative that those who have or will have child support obligations understand the changes.