Ricci v. Ricci: A Fact-Intensive Inquiry into Emancipation in New Jersey

There is no question that parents owe their children a duty of support. The struggle between courts and parents alike is how long that duty needs to last. Most states agree that 19 years of age is the latest a parent is required to support the child, including New Jersey. However, in New Jersey, emancipation can occur once the child turns 18 or becomes financially independent, in which case the parents would file papers requesting the child be emancipated. But what about when the child decides to seek higher education – should the parents be prepared to pay for this? Is there a right for a child to be educated? One recent case, entitled Ricci v. Ricci, explores this issue in greater detail, and in more interesting circumstances.

In this case, parents of the child, Caitlyn, agreed to emancipate her when she left her mother’s home to live with her grandparents at 19. Having been divorced since Caitlyn was 4, both parties filed a consent order terminating child support. Caitlyn intervened, asking to vacate the emancipation order and also requesting an order for her parents to provide funds so she could attend college. The appellate court goes over the record at length, with both intervenor and the other parties disagreeing as to the family dynamics which led Caitlyn to live with her grandparents.

The mother alleged that Caitlyn smoked marijuana, had trouble with alcohol, was sexually promiscuous and essentially failed to follow the rules imposed on her in her mother’s home. Caitlyn stated she simply did not fit in with either her mother or father’s new family, and to ease tensions, decided to live with her grandparents. Caitlyn’s father corroborated this view, stating Caitlyn had not spoken to either parent for over six months, missed family birthdays, and asserted that he opposed her moving in with his parents, as he himself was estranged from them and felt they were a root cause for Caitlyn’s rebellion.

Previously, both parents had agreed they would pay $5,000 for Caitllyn’s education after she was accepted to Montclair State University. However, this changed when it was determined that Caitlyn was not ready to live away from home, and thus should attend a community college. The defendant paid for summer and fall 2012 tuition and Caitlyn was accepted into the Disney college program in Florida. Both parents decided to support her as a test to determine if she was ready to live away from home. However, within a month, Caitlyn was expelled due to underage drinking and hosting a party in the dorms. Caitlyn asserts that she was kicked out after returning from Florida, and was willing to work with her parents in re-enrolling in community college and working, to an extent. At the time of trial, she was attending community college full-time and also earning over $400 each week waitressing. The trial judge ordered the parents to pay the costs of community college for one year. Eventually, Caitlyn enrolled in an out-of-state four-year public university and insisted her parents subsidize her tuition for this endeavor and left open the question of future matriculation.  The issue then became whether, and to what extent, her parents could be held liable for tuition at her new university – and essentially, whether she met the requirements for emancipation in NJ.

To determine emancipation of a child in New Jersey is a fact-intensive analysis. According to the Newburgh case, “the essential inquiry is whether the child has moved beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own.” There is a prima facie proof of emancipation once a child has reached the age of majority, although this presumption can be rebutted, such as by a showing that the child is in full-time education. However, there is no requirement under Newburgh for a child to be supported, and thus, deferred emancipation, if they are unable to adequately perform in their education. The appellate court goes on to say that there must be a strong analysis of the relationship between the parent and child, and that there must be, at least to some extent, acceptance of parental guidance (which should be measured). Otherwise, if the court finds that the child is wholly independent from a parent’s influence, this would support a finding of emancipation in NJ. Given the fact that Caitlyn asserts her behavior is mild, and normal things a teenager would do, while her parents state that she voluntarily left the home, refused to accept any guidance or influence from her parents, shows that there is a material dispute of a crucial fact. Additionally, the court notes that the mere fact a child makes the decision to pursue a college education does not mean that this a dependency which would allow them to be unemancipated.  Ultimately, on appeal, the court could find no evidence in the record showing that the court had adequately determined if Caitlyn had fulfilled the requirements for emancipation in NJ, and thus remanded these issues to the lower court.

However, the court continued by providing more guidance once the issue of Caitlyn had fulfilled the requirements for emancipation in New Jersey was decided. Whether a parent is obligated to pay college tuition, and the child is unemancipated, the court must engage in a two-part analysis. First, there must be a consideration of whether there are other equitable considerations that would lean against a parent paying costs, such as the child’s refusal for the parent to be involved in the choice of schools, and a continued examination of the parent-child relationship. Second, the court must determine whether the parents are actually able to pay any costs, and it is not merely a consideration of the parental incomes. Rather, other financial obligations, such as other minor children, and other debts, should be considered, as well as any contribution from the college student, like financial aid or scholarships.

Overall, for a court to determine whether a child fulfills all aspects of emancipation in NJ is an incredibly fact-intensive and evidence-heavy inquiry. The court here does appear to indicate that there needs to be a trade-off from the child to the parents should the child be found unemancipated and should the parents be ordered to pay for tuition: there should be a firm relationship and the parent should not merely be a bank, and the parent should have the ability to guide and influence the child. There must be an element of dependency – and not just financially – on the parents by the child. If you have any questions concerning emancipation and a parent‘s obligation to contribute to college costs, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen for a free 30 minute in office consultation.

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Peter Van Aulen is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Attorney.

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