Emancipation of a college student – when does it happen?  When should it happen?  In the wake of the Rachel Canning matter, emancipation is a hot button topic in New Jersey.  Generally, the law provides that a child is emancipated when he or she is no longer within the parental “sphere of influence and responsibility.”  It is been deemed the “conclusion of the fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child.”  Well, what does that even mean?  In Rybak-Petrolle v. Rybak, a newly unpublished Appellate Division matter, the Court reversed a trial court decision emancipating the parties’ then 21-year old son.

college (courtesy of google free images)

Here are the facts that you need to know:

The parties’ entered into a settlement agreement that provided for mom to be the primary residential custodial parent for the children, and for dad to pay child support until emancipation, which was defined in the agreement as follows:

An Emancipation Event shall occur or be deemed to have occurred upon the earliest happening of any of the following:

a. The completion of five academic years of college education;

b. Marriage . . . ;

c. Permanent residence away from the residence of [plaintiff] . . . ;

d. Death;

e. Entry into the armed forces . . . ;

f. Engaging in full-time employment, during school vacations and summer periods shall not be deemed an Emancipation Event.

g. Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-paragraph (a) above, an Emancipation Event shall be deemed deferred beyond a child’s [twenty third] birthday only if and so long as he pursues college education with reasonable diligence and on a normally continuous basis.

More than 10 years after the settlement, the Passaic County Probation Division inquired as to whether the child at issue was emancipated for purposes of child support enforcement.  In response, mom submitted documents showing that child was a full-time student at Berkeley College.  Probation, however, was not satisfied with such proofs, and requested a court Order relieving it of its duties to monitor and collect child support.  At a subsequent hearing, the trial judge, after finding that child was a full-time college student, denied Probation’s emancipation request.

After further procedural activity involving Probation’s enforcement duties, another hearing occurred several months later where Probation again argued – despite the trial court’s prior Order – that it was not satisfied with mom’s proof that the son was a full-time college student.  Mom responded that child was in his sophomore year of college, and that he was originally enrolled in Seton Hall University, but did not do well.  She added that he took one semester off before transferring full-time to Berkeley College for online classes where he was maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.

When asked why child was taking online classes, mom responded that it worked better for his schedule, because he was also working 2 jobs to pay for his car insurance bill.  When asked if child was working full-time, mom responded that he was, at which point the judge declared the child emancipated, concluding that “the son was not pursuing a college education with reasonable dilligence on a normally continuous basis as required by the PSA.”

On appeal, the Appellate Division determined that a plenary hearing should have occurred to determine if the child was emancipated, since it is a fact-sensitive inquiry – specifically, “a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child’s need, interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability, among other things.”   The trial court based its ruling solely on “limited questioning” as to the son’s full-time employment while taking online classes and, as a result, a conclusion that he was not pursuing full-time education with reasonable diligence.  The trial judge made no findings as to:

  • The child’s needs and abilities;
  • How many course credits he was taking;
  • His total expenses for school;
  • How many hours he was working;
  • How much he earns;
  • Whether those earnings are sufficient to cover the costs of school and living expenses;
  • Whether there were scholarships or financial aid packages applied for and received; and
  • Other relevant factors.

The parties’ agreement also provided, as quoted above, that one defined emancipation event was the completion of 5 years of college, and that, if the child reached his 23rd birthday, emancipation would be deferred “only if and so long as he pursued college education with reasonable diligence and on a normally continuous basis.”  Based on such enforceable language, the Appellate Division noted that the trial court failed to explain why he used the agreement’s standard for continuing college after 23 when the child was only 21 at the time of the hearing, and held that a child working “while attending school cannot be the sole determinative factor in the decision to emancipate,” nor can be the fact that he took a semester off before transferring to his present school.

The lesson to be learned here is that whether a child – especially one who is simultaneously in college and working – is emancipated is a very fact specific inquiry requiring detailed analysis and consideration.  The answer is not simply in a settlement agreement, nor can it typically be isolated to one specific detail.

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Robert A. EpsteinRobert Epstein is an associate in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Robert practices in the firm’s Roseland, New Jersey office and can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or repstein@foxrothschild.com.

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