A February New Jersey Appeals Court decision involving a 23 year old student focused on whether child support must continue beyond four years of college, when a divorce agreement required the children’s emancipation at 4 years. The Appeals Court didn’t think so.
C.G. and M.L. married in 1991, and had two children. In August 1999, they divorced and made an agreement. It required that their children would be legally emancipated upon either graduation from high school or exactly 4 years of college (depending on their choice to attend). Their eldest daughter Alexa graduated high school in 2010 and then enrolled in a county college at the age of 19. She attended for 4 consecutive years, earning her associate’s degree in Spring 2014.
That same year, the father applied to the Court to have Alexa declared emancipated, which would end his child support obligation. Her mother objected by showing that Alexa “has enrolled at Montclair State University for Fall 2014.” She asked the court to hold a hearing to find out if Alexa was in fact emancipated.
The trial court judge issued an order emancipating Alexa under the terms of the agreement, because she did in fact spend 4 consecutive years pursuing a college degree. He also noted that “Alexa could not be considered to be pursuing an undergraduate degree with adequate diligence,” because “it would take her at least another two years to secure a bachelor’s degree.”
The Appeals Court judge agreed with the fact finding of the lower court insofar as Alexa did in fact attend four consecutive years of college, and thus the terms of the agreement for emancipation were met. However, the upper court did not agree that the lower court’s determination of this fact was “binding and dispositive” on the issue of her emancipation, because the right to child support belongs to the child, not the custodial parent. This means that an agreement between divorcing parents cannot waive child support rights.
But the fact that Alexa enrolled to pursue a bachelor’s degree was simply not enough by itself to rebut “presumptive emancipation.” In other words, if a child is emancipated under the terms of an agreement, enrolling in more college, without other circumstances, does not equal continuing years of child support. So the decision emancipating her and ending child support was upheld.
This case is a good example of what writing a bad contract looks like. A specific length of time is not always an accurate indicator of how long a person will take to achieve a degree. This case may have had a different result if words to the effect of “emancipation upon achieving a bachelor’s degree” were included in the agreement. 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.