Parents are expected to support their children until they are “emancipated.” When a parent seeks to have a court declare a child emancipated, the court will makes its decision based on the settled definition in that state. In New Jersey, emancipation occurs when “a parent relinquishes the right to custody and is relieved of the duty to support a child.” If your child does not meet the established criteria for emancipation, you may lose your case, even if the other parent had previously agreed to a different definition. This is what happened in Conte v. Ainsworth N.J. Super. App. Div., Docket No. A-3337-15T1, August 31, 2017.
In Conte, Ms. Conte wanted the father of her 25-year-old daughter to continue providing support to her daughter even though the parties had entered into an agreement at the time of the child’s birth that provided for child support until emancipation. The agreement defined emancipation as among other things, “upon the completion of the child’s college education.”
The definition of “emancipation” in the parties’ 1992 agreement deviated substantially from the definition of “emancipation” set out in the seminal case of Newburgh v. Arrigo 88 N.J. 529 (1982). In Newburg, the court set forth the 12 factors that must be considered when finding a determination of emancipation. Mere graduation from college is not one of the 12 Newburgh factors.
The trial court agreed with the father’s position that “because the child had graduated from college, she was emancipated under the terms of the parties’ agreement.” However, the mother appealed the decision and won on appeal. The appellate court found “the right of a child to be supported by his or her parents is one that belongs to the child and cannot be waived by the custodial parent.” So even though the mother did agree to another definition of emancipation under the terms of the parties’ agreement, the trial court erred in finding emancipation because the trial court did not consider the Newburgh factors. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s findings and remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether the child was in fact emancipated under the established Newburgh parameters.
The lesson to learn from this case is that it is important to consult with an attorney familiar with relevant laws and court rulings before entering into agreements providing for support of a child. Even though you may ultimately get the other party to agree to your terms, those terms may not be enforceable.