The Burden of Proof when Trying to Stop a Disabled Child’s Emancipation

Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67(a)(1), a child is presumed emancipated at age 19 for purposes of child support, unless a different date is set by the Court. The typical exception is for a child attending college full time, however the date for emancipation shall not extend beyond the child’s 23rd birthday unless there are exceptional circumstances, including a mental or physical disability.

In S.E. v. B.S.B, the mother sought to compel the father to continue paying child support for the parties’ 23-year-old child, who was born with cerebral palsy and subsequently diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The father sought to have the child emancipated, thereby eliminating his child support obligation.

The trial court held a hearing and elicited testimony from both sides. The mother testified that while the son was disabled, he was capable of doing “most things.” The trial court noted that the child attends physical therapy and karate classes on a weekly basis without pain. The trial court also noted that the reports provided to the court by the mother demonstrated that the child was independent with most activities of daily living. Therefore, the trial court concluded that the mother did not meet her burden of rebutting the presumption of emancipation. Accordingly, the trial court emancipated the child, and eliminated the father’s child support obligation.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court. The Appellate Division pointed to Kruvant v. Kruvant, and explained that if an adult child suffers from a disability but is self-sufficient, he is generally considered emancipated and beyond the sphere of a parent’s legal, if not moral, obligation. The Appellate Division noted that while it was sensitive to the mother’s concerns about the child’s future, the mother did not provide any current medical evidence to substantiate the child’s continuing needs or disability.

Accordingly, while in the criminal context we are guided by innocent until proven guilty, this case teaches us that we should be guided by emancipated, until proven disabled.

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