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New Jersey’s “New” Termination of Child Support Statute
On February 1, 2017, New Jersey’s “new” Termination of Child Support Statute went into effect. The new statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67, which was signed into law on January 19, 2016 by Governor Christie, has potential to dramatically impact the duration of child support obligations in New Jersey. The new statute applies to all orders issued prior and subsequent to the statute’s effective date.
New Jersey law provides that there is a rebuttable presumption of a child’s emancipation, an event which justifies termination of child support, upon a child reaching age 18. A child’s attainment of age 18 establishes “prima facie,” but not conclusive, evidence of emancipation. The presumption of emancipation is, however, frequently rebutted based upon the specific facts of a given case (for example: cases where a child was attending college after turning 18). The central, fact-specific inquiry to be made in determining whether emancipation is appropriate is whether the child at issue moved beyond the “sphere of parental influence and responsibility” and obtained an independent status of his or her own. Even in those instances where emancipation and termination of child support was appropriate based on the facts of a particular case, the party seeking termination of child support was obligated to obtain a court order terminating the support obligation. While the “sphere of parental influence” test may still apply in regard to the issue of emancipation specifically, the new statute effectively streamlines the procedure for terminating child support.
Under the new law, child support terminates automatically by operation of law, and without the necessity of seeking a formal court order, upon: a child reaching age 19, entering military service, getting married, or passing away. The statute does, however, articulate certain grounds which justify a continuation of child support beyond a child’s 19th birthday. The new law provides specifically that child support will terminate automatically upon a child reaching 19 unless:
- Another age for termination of child support is specified in a court order (although the statute implements a hard cap, providing for termination upon a child’s turning age 23);
- A written request seeking continuation of child support is submitted to the court by a custodial parent prior to the child reaching age 19; or
- 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.
The statute also expressly identifies the circumstances in which a custodial parent may seek to continue child support beyond a child’s 19th birthday via a written request. Those circumstances include cases where:
- The child is still enrolled in high school or other secondary educational program;
- The child is a student in a post-secondary education program and is enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time attendance during some part of each of any five calendar months of the year;
- The child has a physical or mental disability as determined by a federal or state agency that existed prior to the child’s reaching the age of 19 and requires continued child support; or
- There exist some other exceptional circumstances as may be approved by the court.
Although any of these events may result in a child support obligation continuing beyond a child’s 19th birthday, the new statute implements a firm cap terminating child support upon a child reaching age 23. There are, however, at least two qualifications to the age-23 cap. First, the statute provides specifically that a child who is beyond age 23 can still seek an order requiring the payment of other forms of “financial maintenance” or “reimbursement” from a parent, so long as those maintenance/reimbursement payments are not payable or enforceable as actual child support. Second, the statute provides that a court, upon the application of a parent or child, may convert a child support obligation to another form of financial maintenance for a child who has reached age 23 based on “exceptional circumstances” which include, but are not necessarily limited to, a mental or physical disability. These provisions provide additional protection to families with disabled children, and where other extraordinary circumstances may exist.
The “new” New Jersey Termination of Child Support Statute is undoubtedly payor-friendly as it provides a specific age for automatic termination of child support and attempts to improve the procedure for terminating child support. This change in the law is relevant to any individuals paying or receiving child support now, and/or who may pay or receive child support in the future. Although the new statute has only recently gone into effect, and the full extent of its influence remains to be seen, there is no doubt that it will have a significant impact on child support in New Jersey for the foreseeable future.