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Emancipation as a Threshold Issue

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In Ricci v. Ricci, No. A-1832-14T1, 2017 WL 541084 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Feb. 9, 2017), the Appellate Division examined the role of the court in determining emancipation and when a parent is obligated to provide support for the child in the form of college tuition. The facts involved an unfortunately common scenario: strife and eventual estrangement between parents and child. Under New Jersey law, once a child turns 18, they are presumed emancipated, though the child or parent can attempt to refute this presumption. Parents are not normally required to support a child over the age of 18, though enrollment in a full-time education program has been held to call for future support.

After her parents’ divorce when she was 4, Caitlyn resided with her mother until she graduated high school, at which point increased turmoil with her mother and estrangement from her father caused her to move out and reside with her paternal grandparents. A determination that Caitlyn was emancipated was memorialized in a March 2013 consent order terminating her father’s obligation to pay child support to her mother. Caitlyn contested this order, and sought to intervene and vacate the order of emancipation, and to compel her parents to pay for her full-time community college education costs, among other demands. The trial court allowed her to intervene, and in an October 2013 order, deemed Caitlyn unemancipated solely for the purpose of determining whether her parents should contribute to her college costs, and declined to hold a hearing to determine the actual status of her emancipation. He then ordered her parents to contribute to Caitlyn’s community college tuition, and seemed to leave open the question of future college costs.

The Appellate Division, acknowledging that parental support of children until their emancipation is “fundamental to a sound society,” nevertheless vacated the October 2013 Order. The panel held that a threshold determination of the legal question of emancipation must take place before any analysis to determine the scope of parental obligation to pay for higher education. The panel, examining the trial court’s record, found that there were no factual findings supporting the trial judge’s determination that Caitlyn was unemancipated. The Appellate Division reversed, remanding back to the trial court so that a hearing could be conducted.

Thus, based on the outcome of this plenary hearing, Caitlyn’s choices could have consequences, in that “a child is free to control his or her life, however, this course relieves her parents of the obligation to finances such self-determined decisions.”