Emancipation is the process by which a minor is legally freed from control by their parents or guardians, and the parents or guardians are legally freed from any and all responsibility toward the child. In family law, emancipation most often occurs in the context of child support obligations. A child who is emancipated does not receive child support. Therefore, a supporting spouse (the one making the child support payments) is likely to seek emancipation of a child, while a dependent spouse (the one receiving the child support payments) will likely oppose emancipation. Typically, emancipation is sought when the child reaches the age of majority, but it can also occur before or after this date.
As established by numerous court opinions in New Jersey, emancipation can occur upon the child’s marriage, the child’s introduction into military service, by a court order based on the child’s best interests or by the attainment of an appropriate age. Regarding what is the “appropriate age,” emancipation does not automatically occur upon a minor reaching the age of majority. In Alford v. Somerset County Welfare Board, a New Jersey Appellate Court stated that, “while the age of majority has been established in New Jersey by law, there is no age fixed in law when a child becomes emancipated.” Subsequent cases affirmed this idea. Furthermore, in Newburgh v. Arrigo and Filippone v. Lee, it was determined that reaching the age of majority establishes only a prima facie case but not conclusive proof of emancipation, and can be rebuttable based upon the circumstances of each case.
Newburgh and Filippone are the leading cases in New Jersey regarding emancipation. They not only state that reaching the age of majority simply establishes a prima facie case for emancipation that can be rebutted, but also elaborate on what factors can be used to rebut this presumption. Together, they affirm the fact that the issue of whether a child is emancipated at age eighteen, with correlative termination of the right to parental support, if fact-intensive, and can easily vary based upon the specific circumstances of each case. Together, they also establish the fundamental question asked when determining if a child should be emancipated or not – has the child moved beyond the “sphere of influence” exercised by the parent and obtained an independent status of his or her own?
A child who has moved beyond their parents “sphere of influence” is likely to be emancipated. There are many factors that may be considered by a court to determine whether or not the potentially emancipated child has moved beyond this “sphere of influence.” These factors include the child’s needs, interests and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations and the parties’ financial ability, among other things.
As apparent from the list of factors, they are very broad and can encompass a wide variety of instances.
A basic example, applying the “sphere of influence” analysis, would be a child who is over the age of eighteen (the age of majority), but attends college or another higher-education institution full-time. This child does not have a full-time job, as they are attending school full-time, and may reside with a parent during winter and summer breaks from school. As such, the child is still within the parents’ “sphere of influence.”
Applying the factors mentioned above, the child has no independent resources of their own. The family likely expected the child to attend a college, and it is likely in the child’s best interest to attend college to better their future, rather than be emancipated and have to work and possibly leave school. Applying these factors, the child in question will likely not be emancipated.
As the list of factors in determining whether a child is inside or outside their parents’ “sphere of influence,” is very broad, determining whether or not a child should be emancipated for the purposes of child support obligations is very fact-intensive. Considering the nature of this fact-intensive inquiry required, it is suggested that anyone looking to have their child emancipated or to argue against the emancipation of their child should consult an experienced family law attorney.