A question faced by all parents is, when is a child emancipated in the eyes of the law?  As set forth by the New Jersey Supreme Court,  “emancipation is the act by which a parent relinquishes the right to custody and is relieved of the duty to support a child.”  Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982).  The question and answer therefore have far reaching financial implications.  However, emancipation does not occur at a fixed age.  Rather, the inquiry is fact-specific.

This issue was recently taken on by the Appellate Division in the matter of Brandes v. Rigney, an unpublished opinion finding that the trial court applied improper legal principles in concluding that a child was emancipated.  The parties at issue had three children before they were divorced in 1997.  In 2004, the father, Brandes, sought to have the parties’ sons emancipated.  The parties’ oldest son, Raymond, was born in 1982, while the other son, Eric, was born in 1985.  The trial court denied Brandes’ motion at that time.

Three years later, Brandes moved again for the sons’ emancipation.  The trial court granted the motion.  While Rigney did not object to Raymond’s emancipation, she did as to Eric, asserting that part of his difficulty in completing college was due to his own health issues.  Relying on the twelve factors set forth in Newburgh, the trial court declared Eric emancipated.  It was this decision that formed the basis of Rigney’s appeal.

The Appellate Division first reviewed basic emancipation principles, referencing the quote from Newburgh stated at the outset of this blog entry.  It also referenced N.J.S.A. 9:17B-3, which establishes a rebuttable presumption against emancipation prior to the child reaching the age of majority (18), while stating that turning 18 establishes prima facie, but not definitive, proof of emancipation.  By way of example into this fact-specific question, the Appellate Division stated that emancipation may occur upon a child’s marriage, induction into military service, by a court order based on a child’s best interest, or by attainment of an appropriate age.

The Court then quoted from Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593 (Ch. Div. 1995), stating that the essential inquiry as to emancipation is 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.”  The actual determination, according to the Court by way of reference to Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J. Super. 11 (App. Div. 2006), requires a “critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child’s need[s], interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability, among other things.”

With these legal principles in mind, the Appellate Division held that the trial court erred by deciding that Eric was emancipated through application of the Newburgh factors, since such factors address a parent’s obligation to pay for a child’s college expenses.  As the question was whether Eric was emancipated, which would then impact Brandes’ obligation to pay child support and contribute to his college expenses pursuant to the parties’ settlement agreement, the Court remanded the matter for proper consideration of the issue.