It goes without saying that parents have a legal obligation to financially support their kids. Nevertheless, a common, publicly held misconception is the idea that once a child reaches the age of 18, he or she is automatically emancipated given that 18 is the age at which society deems a child to have reached adult status, or the age of majority. However, attaining the age of 18 does not automatically trigger the emancipation of a child, and, in turn, the termination of child support, as the age of majority and the emancipation age in New Jersey slightly differs.
Emancipation in New Jersey is governed by N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67. At its core, the New Jersey emancipation statute says that a child is emancipated at the age of 19 and thus the obligation for a parent to pay child support ends at that time by “operation of law”, meaning the parent paying child support is not required to do anything additional to have his or her child support obligation terminated. In certain circumstances, however, the emancipation age can occur earlier if, before the age of 19, the child marries, dies, enters the military, or is residing somewhere else full-time with no intent to return home and is no longer financially dependent on his or her parents.
On the other hand, the age of emancipation can also be extended beyond the age of 19, if the child is enrolled full-time in formal education (i.e., four years of college or a vocational or technical school, or the child is still in high school). Typically, full-time means a 12-credit semester, or another full-time designation defined by the educational institution. The same is true even if a child does not attend formal education immediately after finishing high school. Say, for example, a child graduates from high school and takes two years off from school before enrolling in college full-time at age 20. While the child would be considered emancipated after graduating from high school, a custodial parent is free to file an application with the Court asking that the child be considered unemancipated again in light of the child’s full-time enrollment in college. However, absent a physical or mental disability, as determined by a federal or state agency, a parent is not required to pay child support beyond of the age of 23.