What is Emancipation? The term generally refers to the act by which one who was “unfree” by virtue of being under the power and control of another becomes “free” and at liberty to control his/her own destiny. In the context of family law, “emancipation” refers to the application made by a parent (or both) to surrender the responsibility to care, custody a child and effectively a renunciation of parental duties. Many mistakenly believe that renunciation occurs simply because a child reaches the age of 18. This mistaken belief is often based on what many understand as the ability of a child to become legally responsible most often in context of a contract. In fact, while

N.J.S.A. 9:17B-1 et seq. confers statutory civil and contractual rights and obligations upon 18-year olds, that statute has been interpreted as not creating an automatic age level of emancipation. Schumm v. Schumm, 122 N.J. Super. 146,150 (Ch. Div. 1973).

New Jersey courts have often found emancipation should exist when 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.” Bishop v. Bishop , 287 N.J.Super. 593, 598 (Ch.Div.1995) . In Bishop, the son was a West Point Cadet and the parent paying child support argued that because of the son’s enrollment in the military academy, he should be deemed emancipated thereby relinquishing all child support duties. The court determined that West Point cadets receive room, board, tuition and medical care from the military and are paid $6500 a year all of which is retained for the expenses of a personal computer, uniforms, textbooks and activity fees. The court found that the government provided for all of his educational needs and virtually all of his material requirements; therefore, the son’s primary allegiance is no longer to his custodial parent and he has moved beyond his parents’ sphere of influence, obtaining an independent status on his own. Hence, the court held the son to be deemed emancipated. Therefore, this new relationship is inconsistent with parental control and results in emancipation. Slep v. Slep, 43 N.J.Super. 538 (Ch.Div.1957).

What Circumstances May or May Not Constitute Emancipation? Examples of frequent situations in which the court is asked to determine that a minor child has become emancipated include some of the following:

  • When a child gets married
  • When a child enters into the military
  • When a child discontinues his/her education on a full-time continuous basis (with exception of normal school breaks)

There are cases which are complex and there are cases which may be less complicated. For example, in the matter of Leith v. Horgan, 24 N.J.Super. 516, (App.Div.1953), the Appellate Division of New Jersey found emancipation of a child to be appropriate when a minor child married. The Court stated that after the marriage, the legal relation between a daughter and her parents was no longer the peculiar one that it was when the daughter was an unmarried infant and that the parents became members of a group of her close relatives, none of whom is as close as her husband. Therefore, the new relationship between the daughter and her husband is inconsistent with the parental control.

Because emancipation of a child is based heavily on the facts of each particular application for emancipation, there is no sole factor in deciding emancipation cases. For example, in Filippone v. Lee , 304 N.J.Super. 301, 308-09 (App.Div.1997) , a teenage daughter who was also a high school student became pregnant and gave birth to a child. She did not marry the father of the baby. However, she did receive minimal child support from him. She continued living at home in order to finish high school. She planned to complete high school and then attend college. She relied on parental support to meet her personal and educational needs during this period. After evaluating the specific facts, the Court found that she was indeed financially dependent on her parents, that she lived at home and because of her age and her educational pursuits, she should not be emancipated merely because of the fact that she became pregnant and elected to give birth to a child as an unmarried mother.

Generally, while there may be rebuttable presumption against emancipation prior to the age 18, as illustrated by the Filippone case, New Jersey courts do engage in very sensitive and thorough analysis of the facts before them to determine whether or not a child should be emancipated. Often, the question that the courts must answer is whether or not a child has moved “beyond the sphere of influence” exercised by a parent and has obtained “an independent status of his or her own.”