A new child support law became effective February 1, 2017 (N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67) in New Jersey. The new law provides that child support terminates automatically after various triggering events. Some of these events are consistent with the current law, such as child support terminating on the date that a child marries, dies, or enters military service. These are not a change because under pre-existing law the child would be emancipated once any of these events occur.
The new law does terminate child support in new circumstances, including when a child reaches 19 years of age, without a court order, unless:
- The parents agree to another age for termination of child support, which shall not extend beyond the child’s 23rd birthday;
- A written request seeking the continuation of support is submitted to the court by the custodial parent (usually the parent receiving support); or
- The child is in an out-of-home placement.
There are several reasons to submit a written request for child support to continue under No. 2 above, including:
- If the child is still in high school or another secondary education program;
- If the child is a student in a post-secondary education program full-time; or
- If the federal or state government has determined that the child has a physical or mental disability that existed prior to the child’s 19th
Many of the provisions of this new law make sense and are easy to navigate. There is one provision where the law is confusing, especially for parents – the provision where child support shall not extend beyond the child’s 23rd birthday. The law states “the obligation to pay child support shall terminate by operate of law when a child reaches 23 years of age.”
Some parents will see this provision and shout “Hallelujah!” Others will shout something less favorable. But, their exclamations may be a little premature. The law goes on to clarify the issue a little, and possibly also confuse the issue a little more. The law goes on to state that nothing in this section shall be construed to:
- Prevent a child beyond age 23 from seeking a court order requiring the payment of other forms of financial maintenance or reimbursement, as long as this financial maintenance or reimbursement is not payable or enforceable as child support; or
- Prevent the court from converting child support to another form of financial circumstances for a child beyond age 23 due to exceptional circumstances, including, but not limited to, a mental or physical disability.
So now you are asking yourself, does my child support stay the same and just change its name to financial maintenance? This may happen in a lot of cases. The important thing to remember is that the new law does not provide a new substantive standard to law controlling child support.
And what are exceptional circumstances, anyway? Your child does not have any disabilities, but what happens if your 23 year old is still in college full-time finishing up his/her senior year, even if it is their fifth/super senior year? Maybe your child changed majors or transferred and lost credits, started school late, or is taking particularly difficult courses and needs an extra year in school. Can you stop paying child support? Or, if you are the custodial parent, are you now left paying to support your child while he/she finishes up college without any contribution from the other parent? And to make this more confusing, not all college graduates are emancipated. Sometimes children remain unemancipated while they are in graduate school because the key to emancipation is whether a child is “beyond the sphere of influence” of their parent(s).
Terminating financial support for a full-time unemancipated student (whether we call it child support or financial maintenance) does not seem fair in many cases; however, in other cases it may be the equitable outcome. Unfortunately, it is not clear yet how the Family Courts will decide this issue. For now, we will have to examine every potential termination of child support for a 23 year old (or older) full-time student on a case by case basis to determine if financial maintenance is appropriate and whether there are any exceptional circumstances that apply to the case.