Emancipation in New Jersey: Daughter Sues Divorced Parents for College Expenses

New Jersey family law upholds the belief that parents have the responsibility to provide their unemancipated children with support for a college education to the best of their abilities. The Appellate Division of New Jersey recently published a decision that dealt with the question of whether or not the divorced parents of a child who left home at 19 should be obligated to pay her college costs.

Emancipation and Child Support in New Jersey

Emancipation is a legal act that serves two purposes:

  • It releases the child from his or her parents’
  • It ends the parents’ requirement to support the child.

As of February 1, 2017, a parent’s obligation to support a child in New Jersey ends automatically when the child turns 19.

In order for the child to remain unemancipated and for continued child support to be mandated, the custodial parent or the child must request an extension. That extension will be given if the child is still in high school, if he or she is enrolled full time in a secondary program, or if the child has a mental or physical disability.

In all instances, child support ends when the child turns 23. If additional assistance is called for, then a different means of support must be obtained.

Ricci v. Ricci

The case called Ricci v. Ricci was decided by the Appellate Division in November 2016 and published in February 2017. It was originally heard in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part, Camden County.

Background Information

Caitlyn Ricci’s parents divorced when she was a young child. Her mother was the custodial parent.

When Caitlyn graduated from high school, her parents did not think that she was ready to live on her own because of what they referred to as “behavioral problems.” Therefore, they said they would pay for her to attend a community college and after that a local university.

Caitlyn’s relationship with her parents worsened. At age 19 she left her mother’s home and moved in with her paternal grandparents, who were estranged from her father.

The Riccis executed an agreement that declared their daughter emancipated.

Caitlyn was granted permission by the court to intervene in her parents’ matrimonial case. The trial court ruled that she was to be considered unemancipated for the purpose of receiving child support for her college expenses. Her parents were ordered to pay her 2013–2014 tuition for the community college, which was less than $2,000.

Before completing her degree from the community college, however, Caitlyn transferred to Temple University.

On October 11, 2014, a new judge enforced the previous order and applied it to Temple University, which was much more expensive. The court ordered Caitlyn’s parents to pay their daughter’s fees, books, and tuition.

Appellate Court

The Riccis appealed this ruling, and the case went to the Appellate Division.

Caitlyn’s parents said that their daughter voluntarily moved out of her mother’s home. They further claimed that she had refused to comply with their rules and that she had no contact with either of them for the six months prior to taking this legal action against them.

Caitlyn, on the other hand, insisted that her parents’ rules were unreasonable and that she followed them as best she could. She explained that what they called bad behavior was merely typical behavior for those her age. She also alleged that her parents’ motive for declaring her emancipated was to avoid paying for college.

Findings of the Appellate Division

The Appellate Division ordered the case back to the trial court for a plenary, or complete, hearing. It stated that this type of hearing should have been held to determine whether Caitlyn should be considered emancipated or unemancipated before the court ordered the Riccis to pay even for the community college.

In its summary the Court emphasized the fact that children of divorce are entitled to support that equals the standard of living before their parents separated. It also cited the following principles:

  • An unemancipated child is entitled to support without regard to whether he or she lives with one parent, both parents, or neither parent.
  • The best interests of the child are of utmost importance in all family matters.
  • Child support belongs to the child, not the parent. The fact that the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent agree that child support should end is irrelevant.

In determining whether or not the Riccis will have to pay their daughter’s college bills, two questions will have to be asked:

  • Is Caitlyn unemancipated?
  • Does Catlyn have an aptitude for college?

If both are answered in the affirmative, then the ability of each parent to pay will have to be addressed. When ascertaining a parent’s ability to pay for a child’s college expenses, a Newburgh hearing is often held.

Newburgh Factors

The proceeding known as a Newburgh hearing is named after a 1982 case heard in the New Jersey Supreme Court.

There are twelve factors that are used to determine the obligation of each parent. Among these factors are the amount of the contribution sought; the financial resources of each parent; the ability of the child to earn money; and the availability of grants, loans, and scholarships. 

Do you need representation at a Newburgh hearing or help with another family-court matter? Do you have questions about child support? The experienced divorce and family law attorneys at Aretsky Law Group, P.C., can help. For an initial consultation, call us 24/7 at 800-537-4154.

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