An October 7 Appeals Court decision involved a disagreement between divorced parents over whether the non-custodial parent must continue to pay child support or other financial benefits for a child that has recently obtained a bachelor’s degree and decided to pursue graduate school. That Court said probably not and there is a burden on the child to explain exactly why he/she is incapable of being a full fledged, economically self sufficient adult. Also, child support (although not financial assistance) legally must end at 23. The idea of court ordered financial assistance beyond the age of 23 is meant for extreme circumstances.
New Jersey just enacted a new law (effective February 1, 2017), N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67, which basically says that an obligation of child support ends when a child turns 19, or unless a court order longer, but not beyond that child’s 23rd birthday.
But under the law, a 23 year old can still ask a court order for further “financial maintenance,” but doesn’t say what exactly that child needs to show. Again, the burden is on the child – child support paid to the other parent officially ends at 23 years of age, regardless.
The Husband and wife in this case married in 1991, divorced in 2004, and had two children who were 11 and 7 at that time. Their divorce settlement said that either child would be considered “emancipated” upon graduation from the post-high school institution and that “a child attending college or similar post high school institution shall not be considered as emancipated.”
They also agreed that they had joint responsibility (not equal) in the children’s post high school education. The settlement agreement did not talk about graduate school.
Their daughter earned her bachelor’s in May, and will turn 23 this month. In September, the mother filed an application seeking unpaid child support. The father also applied to the Court to formally emancipate that daughter and to recalculate the child support for the other child. The mother then asked the court to deny that emancipation request and to compel the father to continue paying, since the daughter decided to obtain her master’s degree.
The Court said that not only is graduate school far different from college undergraduate , but that a 23 plus year old is far different than someone younger (financial competence, marketability, maturity, etc.) Plus, it said, it is normal and feasible for a graduate student to finance his/her own schooling either by working or taking out loans.
How far can emancipation be pushed down the road? Can a student spend for example, 5, 10 years after their undergrad and be legally considered unemancipated? The Court felt that would be logically absurd. It’s also fairly obvious that the legislature made 23 the child support cutoff to fall in line with when a person generally completes a bachelor’s program.
The court ultimately ruled that it is the requesting child’s burden to show that he/she needs continued financial support. Some questions the Appeals judge felt were important to ask:
1) Why can’t the college graduate utilize his or her college degree to obtain a full time job to be self-supporting outside of the parental “sphere of influence”?
2) Given that many people work and seek graduate degrees at the same time, by going to graduate school at night or online, why are such options not available to this particular student?
3) If the proposed graduate school program is so comprehensive and intense as to essentially make employment impractical or impossible, and if the adult student therefore needs additional money for expenses, what if any attempts have there been on his or her part to get additional funds as an adult through other sources besides one’s parents, such as loans?
4) Why can’t the student fund his or her own graduate school aspirations through a combination of working and student aid?
5) Why is it fair for the graduate student’s parent(s), as opposed to the student, to be held continuously responsible under court-order for financial maintenance of the student, particularly if the parents have already supported the child a for years after his or her 18th birthday, and/or helped fund tuition during the student’s undergraduate years while he or she pursued and obtained a college degree?
One exception the decision gave would be in the case of a severely disabled child who cannot possibly subsist independently. Ultimately, this case was sent back to a lower court judge for a hearing in which the daughter would have to testify exactly why she felt she could not yet be legally emancipated. It remains uncertain as to how she will, or even if she wants to, convince the court. (The mother is the one who originally brought this claim). Evan Xavier Bakhet is a J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a scheduled graduation date in 2017. He collaborated with me on this blog.