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Matrimonial Matters: The age of majority and financial reality


Sara Stout Ashcraft

Recently the news buzzed with a story that flabbergasted many Americans, but which came as no surprise to many family law practitioners. The story revolved around a New Jersey high school senior bringing a support action against her parents.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel Canning claimed that she was unable to financially support herself after her parents forced her from the family residence. She wanted the court to direct her parents to pay for her final semester at a private high school, her living and transportation expenses, plus to pay her college tuition and legal fees.

The New Jersey Superior Court denied Ms. Canning the high school tuition and living expenses, and set a new hearing date on other issues, including whether Canning left the family home of her own volition of whether her parents forced her out. The parents claim that their daughter left because she did not want to follow their rules, while Ms. Canning alleged that she was “subjected to severe verbal and physical abuse” by them.

The underlying issue is whether parents have a legal responsibility for financial support of a child who has reached the age of majority. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the age of majority is “the age at which, by law, a person is entitled to the management of his own affairs and to the enjoyment of civic rights.” These rights commonly included such basic adult rights such as the right to contract and the right to marry, and in most jurisdictions, that magic age is 18.

In the United States children are entitled financial support from their parents. Problems arise when the child reaches the age of majority yet the state still holds the child’s parents to their obligation to support the child. Family lawyers in New York frequently have to deal with this issue as New York sets majority at 18 but holds parents responsible for the financial support of children until age 21 or “earlier emancipated.”

In real-world terms, that means upon reaching 18, a child can live wherever he or she wants, but the parents are expected to provide child support until the child turns 21. New Jersey law provides an even stickier problem: There, children reach majority at age 18, but there is no final termination age for child support — and so arose the Canning case. Under New Jersey law, only a court can relieve a parent of a support obligation; there is no “automatic” emancipation age.

This sort of issue can be of major importance in interstate child support cases, as the states vary in determining when a parent ceases to have a support obligation to a child. According to the Office of Child Support Enforcement 2012 Intergovernmental Referral Guide, most states relieve parents of support obligations when a child reaches majority at 18.

However, a number of these states allow for a later support emancipation age (commonly 19) as long as the child is attending high school. Alabama, Colorado, Indiana and Nebraska set the support emancipation age at 19. A few jurisdictions join New York in setting 21 as the emancipation age: the District of Columbia, Mississippi and Puerto Rico. Vermont sets 21 as the emancipation age if the child is attending post-secondary education. Indiana now sets 19 — previously 21 — as the emancipation age for educational needs support only, provided the child is attending post-secondary education. The Virgin Islands goes to 22 so long as the child is in school — secondary, college or vocational. Massachusetts also postpones emancipation up to age 22, provided the child is living with the parent and enrolled in “an educational program.”

More specifics on each state’s particular child support emancipation laws, along with the applicable statues are available on the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures: www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/termination-of-child-support -age-of-majority.

Sara Stout Ashcraft is a partner in Ashcraft, Franklin, Young & Peters LLP. She concentrates her practice in the areas of matrimonial and family law.

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