Despite what people often think are iron-clad agreements, foolproof from any misinterpretation, despite best efforts, that may not always be the case. One area that has been given significant recognition for interpretation by our courts is the area of what constitutes emancipation of a child.
This issue was recently addressed in the unpublished Appellate Court opinion, Zingone v. Zingone, decided June 1, 2009, A-0078-08T1. Generally, a parent has no obligation to support an emancipated child. So what constitutes emancipation?
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has held that emancipation can be found when a child marries, joins the military, reaching of an appropriate age, and when a court orders him/her so based upon the child’s best interests. Just because a child turns 18 years old only establishes prima facie, not conclusive proof. Whether a child is emancipated at 18 years old depends on the facts of the case.
So what does the court look at? The most important inquiry is whether the child has moved beyond his or her parents’ sphere of influence and responsibility and has obtained independent status. To make this determination, one must look at the child’s needs, interests and independent resources as well as the family’s expectations and the parents’ financial ability.
However, if an agreement remains vague as to a triggering emancipation event, as the plaintiff argued in Zingone above, courts will often refer to public policy, which in modern times, encourages a college education, especially where a child shows scholastic aptitude and the parents are able to afford it.
In New Jersey, our highest Court has recognized that generally, financially capable parents should contribute to the higher education of children who are qualified. Even in cases where a child may take a brief break from college, during which time he or she is working full-time, our courts have held that that child is not emancipated because he or she has not yet moved beyond their parents’ sphere of influence.
These cases are often extremely fact specific and require examination of several factors before an individual can determine whether or not their child may be emancipated under the laws of this state such that relief from financial obligations would be successful.