Signed into law on January 19, 2016, New Jersey’s emancipation law is set to take effect on February 1, 2017 and will apply to all child support orders issued prior to or after its effective date.
One of the highlights of the new law is that it will dramatically impact when and how child support orders will terminate. Specifically, it provides that unless otherwise indicated in a court order or judgment, the obligation to pay child support shall terminate without order on the date a child marries, dies or enters into military service.
Child support will also terminate automatically when a child reaches 19 years of age unless (a) another age for such termination is specified in a court order, which shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches 23 years of age; (b) a written request seeking the continuation of child support is submitted to the court by a custodial parent prior to the child reaching the age of 19; or (c) the child receiving support is in an out of home placement through the Division of child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families.
Just ahead of the effective date of the statute, Judge Jones issued an opinion on the effect of one child’s emancipation in Harrington v. Harrington. In Harrington, the parties divorced in 2012. The parties have three children, all of whom were unemancipated at the time of the divorce. As such, the parties’ settlement agreement provided that the father would pay the mother the sum of $240 per week in child support for all three children. In what would become a decisive fact in the case for Judge Jones, he noted that the child support was unallocated, rather than broken down or allocated into specific dollar amounts for each child – either on a one-third per child basis or otherwise.
Following the divorce, the father paid child support as agreed without requesting an modifications, even when their oldest child began college. In September, 2014 the parties mutually agreed to emancipate their two oldest children. Two orders were entered confirming the emancipation, but the amount of child support that the father paid remained the same. Further, neither party submitted or exchanged updated financial information or filed any motion. In June, 2015, the last remaining unemancipated child graduated high school and decided not to proceed to college. The father continued to pay $240 per week in child support nonetheless, without any objection by either party.
In February, 2016, a year-and-a-half after the first two children were emancipated, the father filed a motion for the retroactive allocation of child support to $80 per child, and downward modification of one-third per emancipated child, effective September, 2104. He also sought to emancipate the youngest child and terminate his obligation. The mother consented to the emancipation of the youngest child, but opposed the retroactive modification that the father sought. With regard to the issue of retroactive emancipation, the Court initially grappled with which law to apply in this situation: should it apply the anti-retroactivity statute which prohibits the retroactive modification of unallocated child support, or does the case law with regard to retroactive emancipation apply?
In reaching its decision, the Court devised a set of equitable factors that should be examined:
1) How much time has passed between the date of one child’s emancipation and the filing date of the obligor’s present motion for retroactive modification of unallocated child support for the remaining unemancipated child or children?
2) What are the specific reasons for any delay by the obligor in filing a motion to review support based upon emancipation?
3) Did the non-custodial parent continue to pay the same level of child support to the obligee, either by agreement or acquiescence, and of his or her own decision and free will, even after he/she could have filed a motion for emancipation at a prior point in time?
4) Did the custodial parent or child engage in any fraud or misrepresentation that caused the obligor’s delay in filing a motion for emancipation and support modification motion?
5) If the non-custodial parent alleges that the custodial parent failed to communicate facts that would have led to emancipation and modification of support at an earlier date, could the non-custodial parent have nonetheless otherwise easily obtained such information with a reasonable degree of parental diligence and inquiry?
6) If the obligor’s child support obligation was unallocated between multiple unemancipated children of the parties, will a proposed retroactive modification of child support over a lengthy period of time be unduly cumbersome and complicated, so as to call into question the accuracy and reliability of the process and result?
7) Did the custodial parent previously refrain from seeking to enforce or validly increase other financial obligations of the non-custodial parent, such as college contribution for any remaining unemancipated child, because during such time period, the non-custodial parent continued to maintain the same level of unallocated child support without seeking a decrease or other modification?
8) Is the non-custodial parent seeking only a credit against unpaid arrears, or rather an actual return of child support already paid to, and used by, the custodial parent toward the financial expenses of the child living in the custodial parent’s home?
9) If the non-custodial parent seeks an actual return of money previously paid to the custodial parent, what is the estimated dollar amount of child support that the non- custodial parent seeks to receive back from the custodial parent, and will such amount likely cause an inequitable financial hardship to the custodial parent who previously received such funds in good faith?
10) Are there any other factors the court deems relevant to the analysis?
In applying the above factors to the present case, the Court considered the following factors: nearly a year and a half passed between the effective date of the emancipation for the older two children and the filing of the father’s motion; there was no reason provided to explain the delay in filing; during that period, the father continued to pay the same level of child support to the mother; there was no evidence submitted that the mother or the children engaged in any type of fraud; the mother and children communicated facts that would have led to a modification of support; and, a retroactive modification of support to 2014 may be unduly complicated given the fact that no financial information was submitted for the period of time in question – 2014-2016.
The Court noted that a hearing should to be scheduled to examine these factors and weigh the comparative equities to determine whether to exercise its discretion and retroactively modify unallocated child support prior to the motion filing date, based upon a prior emancipation of one or more children. However, the Court was somber in its knowledge that this would not be an easy task – i.e. to recreate what child support *might* have looked like over a two year period of time.